Imran Khan’s Visit to Sri Lanka has Broader Implications

9 March 2021 Tridivesh Singh Maini, FDI Visiting Fellow Download PDF

While Sri Lanka and Pakistan share cordial ties, in South Asia the China factor cannot be ignored, and both Pakistan and Sri Lanka are heavily dependent upon China and their accumulated debts to Beijing. Sri Lanka needs to strike a fine balance between New Delhi on the one hand and the Islamabad-Beijing alliance on the other.


Key Points

  • Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka was important for more than one reason.
  • Sri Lanka is only the second South Asian country that Khan has visited since taking over as PM.
  • While Sri Lanka and Pakistan share cordial ties, no one can ignore the China factor in South Asia, and both Pakistan and Sri Lanka are heavily dependent upon China and their accumulated debts to Beijing.
  • Apart from the discussion of bilateral issues, Khan’s reference to regional co-operation was also important. The visit was thus important not just bilaterally, but in the regional context as well.



Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, embarked upon a two-day visit to Sri Lanka on 23 -24 February, accompanied by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Commerce Adviser Abdul Razzak Dawood, Special Assistant Syed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari and a group of 40 businessmen. Khan is the first Pakistani PM to visit Sri Lanka since 2016, when former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the country. Interestingly, Sri Lanka is only the second country that he has visited in South Asia, having visited Afghanistan in November 2020, after taking office in 2018.



Bilateral Relevance

While both sides explored ways to enhance co-operation, the visit was important in the regional context. In keeping with their emphasis on enhancing economic linkages and bilateral trade (Pakistan is Sri Lanka’s second largest trading partner in South Asia after India and both countries had signed an FTA in 2005), Memoranda Of Understanding were signed to strengthen bilateral co-operation in the fields of investment, science and technology, and industrial technology.

Imran Khan also spoke of greater people to people contact through tourism and the role of cricket in bolstering ties between both countries, while praising the Sri Lankan cricket team. Khan had an interactive session with Sri Lankan sportsmen in Colombo.

It would be myopic to overlook the broader geopolitical ramifications of Prime Minister Khan’s visit in the context of the China and India factors.

How BRI-related Projects Affect Sri Lanka and Pakistan

Both Sri Lanka’s and Pakistan’s economic ties to China have strengthened in recent years. According to many observers, that engagement with Beijing highlights the shortcomings of economic engagement with China in general and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-related projects in particular. The Hambantota Port, which Sri Lanka leased to the Chinese for 99 years in 2018 for US$1.2 billion ($1.5 billion) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have been cited as striking examples of China’s “Debt Trap Diplomacy”. The former Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, stated that leasing Hambantota Port would help Sri Lanka service its mounting debt to China. Members of Imran Khan’s Cabinet raised questions in regard to the cost of certain CPEC projects, but China expressed its displeasure at those questions being raised and Pakistan was forced to forego asking them.

Interestingly, the current Sri Lankan government, which is perceived as being very pro-China – Prime Minister Mahindra Rajapaksa, during his stint as President, pushed Colombo closer to China – criticised the previous government for leasing the port. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said that the agreement with China has, moreover, a provision to extend the lease for a further 99 years and that the government was reviewing the deal. China denied there is any such provision in the terms of the lease.

US Criticism of China’s Engagement with Pakistan and Sri Lanka

Senior officials in the Trump Administration, including Mike Pompeo and Alice Wells, repeatedly referred to the possible implications of BRI-related projects in South Asia. As Pompeo noted in a visit to Sri Lanka in October 2020:

‘The Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner.’

Alice Wells, who was in charge of the South Asia desk, was also critical of the CPEC project.

Imran Khan’s Proposal of Sri Lanka Joining CPEC

Interestingly, during his visit Khan stated that Sri Lanka could benefit from the project and, alluding to the possibility of Sri Lanka-Pakistan co-operation on CPEC, said that he and Mahindra Rajapaksa had:

‘… discussed other areas where we can enhance our trading ties where Sri Lanka can benefit from Pakistan’s connectivity in the future, right up to central Asia.’

The possibility of Sri Lanka joining CPEC was not only discussed with Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but Mr Khan, addressing the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference in Colombo, invited Sri Lankan businessmen to benefit from the opportunities provided by the CPEC project.

He also discussed regional issues, including the resolution of the Afghan conflict and the commitment of both Sri Lanka and Pakistan to the SAARC Charter.

Deterioration of Sri Lanka-India Ties

It is difficult to ignore India’s de facto influence factor in the Sri Lanka-Pakistan relationship. According to many observers, Imran Khan’s address to the Sri Lankan Parliament was cancelled because Colombo did not want to annoy New Delhi. Interestingly, India had allowed Khan to use Indian airspace to fly to Colombo.

In recent months, however, there has been a souring of ties between Sri Lanka and India. First, a tripartite agreement signed between India, Japan and Sri Lanka to develop Colombo Port was cancelled. The reason cited for the cancellation was resentment among local workers. A tripartite agreement was signed between Sri Lanka, Japan and India to develop the port’s Eastern Container Terminal in May 2019. As it happens, former President Wickremesinghe and the Prime Minister had differed on this issue, which was cited as one of the reasons for Wickremesinghe’s sacking.

Second, the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka continues to be a bone of contention between New Delhi and Colombo. Sri Lanka has sought to grant greater powers to the President under Amendment 20A, which was passed in October 2020. Mahindra Rajapaksa was at the helm of affairs when the war against the LTTE took place and he was accused of human rights violations. A number of Tamil political leaders, activists and scholars feel that with the concentration of power there could be no scope for justice for the Tamils. India, for its part, has pushed for the implementation of the 13th Amendment in the Sri Lankan Constitution, which seeks to grant greater powers to the provinces. The 13th Amendment was brought in after the India-Sri Lanka agreement of 1987.

Third, Sri Lanka repaid a US$400 million ($522 million) currency swap to India. Colombo had signed that agreement in July 2020 under the umbrella of SAARC. Sri Lanka repaid that debt a day after it cancelled the tripartite agreement for the development of the Eastern Container Terminal. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka clarified that there was no pressure from India to repay the loan.

Fourth, in February 2021, much to the chagrin of India, a Chinese firm had secured a contract to set up hybrid wind and solar energy projects on three Sri Lankan islands (Nainativu, Delft or Neduntheevu, and Analaitivu), off the northern Jaffna peninsula, less than fifty kilometres from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, India has offered a grant for the US$12 million ($15.6 million) project which Sri Lanka is giving serious consideration.

The previous Sri Lankan government had laid a strong emphasis on bolstering ties with India, Japan and other countries in order to reduce its dependence upon China. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe noted at a conference that Sri Lanka was looking at a range of investors, saying:

‘Initially the investors will come from China, Japan, India. Then the others will follow. We’d like to see them coming in from Europe.’

Sri Lanka’s Balancing Act between India and the China-Pakistan Alliance

After the return of the Rajapaksas to power, the new government categorically stated that they would maintain close ties with India. In fact, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first visit after returning to power was to New Delhi. During the visit, India announced the US$400 million line of credit for Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development.

Sri Lanka also categorically stated that it would follow an “India First” policy and that India was a relation, whereas other countries were friends. During his visit to India in November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa also stated that terrorism was a common threat to both countries. Based on those factors, it would appear that Sri Lanka’s decision to cancel Mr Khan’s address to its Parliament is a clear sign of balancing. Analysts believe that as a result of the increasing debts to China, as well as its dependence upon India for COVID-19 vaccines, Colombo wants to strike a balance and to check the downward trend in its bilateral ties with New Delhi.

The View From New Delhi

While New Delhi cannot dictate Sri Lanka’s ties with Pakistan, it would have paid close attention to Mr. Khan’s discussion of regional issues, including a resolution of the Afghanistan Conflict and the commitment of Sri Lanka and Pakistan to the SAARC Charter. India has opposed the restoration of SAARC on the grounds that Pakistan plays a spoiler role within that association, even though Pakistan was recently invited to a meeting of SAARC officials. Mr Khan also referred to the attempts that he has made to improve ties with India. While saying that he had not been successful in doing so, he noted that he was:

‘… optimistic that eventually sense will prevail. The only way the subcontinent can tackle poverty is by improving trade relations. Let us live like civilised neighbours as the Europeans live.’


While there has been strategic congruence between Sri Lanka and India on a number of issues, New Delhi is mindful of the close relations between Colombo and Islamabad in the defence sphere; some Sri Lankan military officers, for instance, are sent to Pakistan for training. Even more important is China-Pakistan-Sri Lanka defence co-operation. In 2016, it is believed, Sri Lanka dropped its plans to purchase Chinese JF-17 Thunder aircraft that were made in Pakistan and co-produced by the China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation due to Indian pressure.

During Mr Khan’s visit, Pakistan offered Sri Lanka a credit line of US$50 million ($63.6 million) for defence and security.

In conclusion, Sri Lanka had to strike a fine balance between New Delhi on the one hand and the Islamabad-Beijing alliance on the other. Imran Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka was not only about the bilateral context. It would be interesting to see if Pakistan, along with other countries, pushes for the revival of the SAARC process – Khan repeatedly alluded to the need for constructive co-operation within South Asia – and how India responds to that call. The joint statement by DGMO’s from both India and Pakistan which calls for a ceasefire along the LOC is a welcome step. Said the joint statement:

‘Both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings, and cease firing along the Line of Control with effect from midnight, 24/25 February 2021.’

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic implications provide an opportunity for all South Asian countries to think innovatively and not in zero-sum terms. While India ought to take the lead and not allow domestic politics to influence its relations with other countries, it is equally important for other countries to reduce their dependence upon China and follow an independent foreign policy.



About the Author

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst and FDI Visiting Fellow.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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