Prime Minister’s Maiden visit to Sri Lanka
Fatima Shabbir (Intern at IRS)
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s maiden visit to the island nation Sri Lanka on 23rd of February 2021 was of immense importance, focusing mainly on cooperation and strengthening bilateral ties between the two nations, which traditionally enjoy warm relations. It was a two-day official visit on the invitation of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Besides, the visit came at a time while India is trying to be the regional hegemon. To counter the Indian threat, Pakistan is working on strengthening its ties with other South Asian states: firstly, with Afghanistan and now with Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Khan was accompanied by a high-level delegation, which was greeted with a warm welcome by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister at the Colombo airport. Prime Minister Khan was showered with respect and honor in his two-day visit. The former cricketer was presented a documentary of his sports achievements while at a ceremony for the inauguration of Sri Lanka’s High-Performance Sports Complex at his hands. This documentary was later shared by Prime Minister Khan on his Twitter and Instagram. He announced Rs.52 million for the development of sports and announced 100 scholarships in field of medicine for Sri Lankan students.
Trade and investment, health and education, agriculture, science and technology, defence and security, and culture and tourism were on the agenda of cooperation between both countries. Prime Minister Khan said that as Pakistan was part of One Belt and Road initiative, CPEC would enhance Sri Lanka’s connectivity right up to Central Asia while trade ties would bring Pakistan and Sri Lanka close together.
Moreover, during this visit Pakistan offered a $50 million credit line for defence procurements to Sri Lanka. Both sides called for a stronger partnership on issues related to terrorism, security, drugs and narcotics trafficking, and organized crime as well as intelligence sharing. This gave both countries an opportunity to expand security sector relations. Apart from this, the plans for establishing Asian Civilization and Culture Centre at the University of Peradeniya at the Sri Lankan resort of Kandy were also announced by Pakistan.
To further strengthen the ties, during the visit, a number of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were signed, the MoUs included:
- MoU on cooperation in tourism;
- MoU between the Boards of Investment;
- MoU between Karachi University’s International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences and Sri Lanka’s Industrial Technology Institute (ITI);
- ITI and Comsats University Islamabad plan on cooperating together; and
- MoU between Lahore School of Economics and University of Colombo.
Besides, both countries stressed the importance of achieving the $1 billion bilateral trade goal at the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference in Colombo, alongside working to extend and deepen the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Moreover, Prime Minister Khan highlighted the importance of developing robust economic partnership characterized by increased bilateral trade, investment, and increased cooperation in the areas of agriculture, sport, science and technology, tourism, culture, and education.
This visit came along with many positive impacts, most importantly for the Muslim population of Sri Lanka. However, on the request of Prime Minister Khan, the Sri Lanka government issued a notification on allowing the Muslims to bury the COVID-19 effected dead bodies rather than cremating them.
Additionally, the reconstruction of the Sri Lanka-Pakistan Parliamentary Friendship Association was accepted by both the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Both sides emphasized the importance of regional cooperation and agreed to move the SAARC process forward in order to improve and strengthen regional cooperation. Prime Minister Khan stressed the need for a peaceful resolution, through substantive dialogue in compliance with international legitimacy of all outstanding conflicts, especially the protracted Kashmir issue, as both sides reaffirmed their mutual commitment to regional peace, security, and stability.
Keeping in view the rich Buddhist heritage of Pakistan, Prime Minister Khan pointed out that the country had immense potential of being a tourist attraction and a choice of destination for the citizens of Sri Lanka for religious tourism.
Furthermore, Sri Lankan Prime Minister appreciated Khan government’s approach towards empowering grass root level communities and underprivileged which resembles his own government’s agenda. He called the bilateral ties as “All Weather” friendship. Both the leaders also shared ways and experiences in the alleviation of poverty and to control food inflation with the help of technology. To further the relations, Prime Minister Khan offered an invitation to the President of Sri Lanka to visit Pakistan at the earliest convenience.
The visit is arguably an important step in the future of Pakistan and Sri-Lankan relations alongside benefitting regional cooperation and also signals the failure of India in isolating Pakistan. However, due to the strained historical relations between India and Sri Lanka because of Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka partnering with Pakistan and China by entering CPEC will balance out India against Sri Lanka.