India and Maldives would resolve the issues between them “bilaterally” said Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, emphasising that while Maldives has allowed a Chinese ‘research’ vessel into the Male harbour, no Chinese troops had been allowed in.
Speaking to The Hindu on the sidelines of the Indian Ocean Conference, Mr. Wickremesinghe also confirmed Sri Lanka’s decision to join the 15-nation ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP) agreement that includes China in the free trade zone, a grouping India walked out of in 2019.
The Sri Lankan President that he had discussed India-Sri Lanka economic and connectivity initiatives with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who called on him on Friday evening here, and both sides completed a review of pending programmes as well as Sri Lanka’s economic recovery process. Explaining his decision to apply for RCEP membership, Mr. Wickremesinghe said that Sri Lanka needed to access as many markets as possible.
“India has a vast internal market, but if Sri Lanka has to grow it has to reach as many external markets as possible. We already have our relationship with India that helps us economically as well as the 1998 free trade agreement,” Mr. Wickremesinghe said, describing RCEP as an opportunity to have the “best of two worlds”. When asked about whether the economic recovery would enable elections in the country, Mr. Wickremesinghe confirmed that Sri Lankan Presidential elections would be held in 2024 itself, while parliamentary elections would be held soon after them.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said neither Delhi nor Male had approached Sri Lanka to mediate between them, as tensions have grown over the return of Indian troops, the entry of Chinese vessels, and critical comments made by Maldivian Ministers. Sri Lanka hopes the issues would subside “soon” in the interest of the Indian Ocean Region.
“As a friend and a neighbour, we would like to see them [India and Maldives] sort out their issues soon. I would say, Maldives itself has an [internal] process and the two sides are talking. There is a new government there and I think everyone must give these issues time to be sorted out,” Mr. Wickremesinghe said. The presence of foreign research vessels in the Indian Ocean Region has been a prominent concern at the conference, where Dr. Jaishankar referred to “growing anxieties” over “dual purpose agendas” and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong spoke about China’s “rapid military build-up” in the Indo-Pacific.
Mr. Wickremesinghe did not respond to a question about whether pressure from India had led to Sri Lanka’s one year moratorium on foreign research ships docking in Sri Lankan ports. However, he clarified that regular port calls for fuel and food replenishment as well as naval exercises would continue as normal, including from China. This month, the Lankan Navy accorded India’s I.N.S. Karanj a ceremonial welcome at the Colombo port as a part of such exchanges.
The Sri Lankan President’s words came even as the Maldives indicated that it has reached an agreement with India on the issue of the Indian troops stationed on southern atolls for the maintenance of India-donated aircraft meant for humanitarian assistance and Coast Guard operations. According to a statement by Maldives President Muizzu to Parliament this week, Indian and Maldivian officials, who met in January and February, had agreed that India would “relocate” military personnel from three aviation platforms beginning March 10, and complete the process by May 10. According to sources, India has been discussing the possibility of a partial climbdown, sending non-military aircraft personnel in their stead, although the Ministry of External Affairs has yet to confirm the deal.
Speaking at the Indian Ocean conference organised by the India Foundation in Perth, Maldives Deputy Foreign Minister Shereyna Abdul Samad did not refer directly to the issue, or to the issue over the docking of Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3 in Male port this month, but defended the need among small island states for more resources to carry out scientific research in their waters.
“It is an impossible task to overcome [resource] challenges without the financial and technical backing from bigger countries, especially in the face of a recurring global crisis. I urge the countries in the Indian Ocean region to step up and work with island states to strengthen their ability and accurately identify emerging threats through these exchanges and joint research exercises,” Ms. Samad said.
The presence of the junior Minister from the Maldives was significant as in December, Maldives’ new government had skipped a meeting of the India-led Colombo Security Conclave in Mauritius, although the Maldivian Vice President attended the Chinese-run Indian Ocean Forum in Kunming.