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India leader to visit Sri Lanka as pro-China policy ebbs

February 20, 2015

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Sri Lanka in March, a government spokesman said, amid signs the island nation is shifting from its heavy pro-China policy.

The March 13-15 visit will be the first by an Indian head of state in 27 years, spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said Thursday.

The new Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, returned from a visit to India this week, his first trip overseas, and highlighted the improving ties that had soured because of Sri Lanka’s closeness to China under the previous administration.

Sirisena won a surprise victory last month against former ally Mahinda Rajapaksa, who relied heavily on China for infrastructure projects and backing against human rights allegations at the United Nations.

China’s increasing influence in Sri Lanka had made India anxious because it considers the Indian Ocean region to be its strategic backyard.

China has provided loans for an airport, sea port, highways and power plants in Sri Lanka, where it became the largest investor. The new government, however, announced it would investigate a $1.5 billion Colombo Port City project, constructed on an artificial island off Colombo, because of suspicions it was not transparent.

The deal was sealed last September when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Sri Lanka and won Colombo’s support for a proposed maritime “Silk Road” linking China with Europe.

The late Rajiv Gandhi was the last Indian leader to visit Sri Lanka in 1987 to sign a peace pact to end an ethnic Tamil separatist rebellion still in its infancy. India sent peacekeepers to Sri Lanka as part of that agreement, angering the Tamil Tiger rebels whose suicide bomber assassinated Gandhi in 1991 at an election rally.

The rebels were crushed by the Sri Lankan military in 2009. China assisted Sri Lanka in the civil war by providing arms and later defended the country at the U.N. Human Rights Council against allegations of abuses in the civil war.

Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Sri Lanka in 2008, but only to participate in a summit of South Asian leaders.

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