India will always be a 'dependable partner and reliable friend' of Sri Lanka: Jaishankar

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Colombo, Jan 6 (PTI) Assuring that India will always be a 'dependable partner and reliable friend' of Sri Lanka, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Wednesday said New Delhi is open to strengthening its relationship with Colombo on the basis of 'mutual trust, mutual interest, mutual respect and mutual sensitivity'.

Addressing a joint media briefing here with his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena, Jaishankar also said that the coronavirus pandemic has not been able to dent the bilateral ties and that the two countries are now looking at post-COVID cooperation.

'COVID hasn't been able to dent our bilateral cooperation. In fact, high level contacts were maintained and indeed strengthened during the past year and the virtual summit between our prime ministers was a high watermark for us in 2020,' he said.

Jaishankar, who earlier called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, said he conveyed warm greetings from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and discussed cooperation for post-Covid health and economic recovery.

'India will be a reliable partner in Sri Lanka's development,' he tweeted.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he and Jaishankar discussed ways to strengthen bilateral ties.

'Strengthening bilateral relationship between #SriLanka & #India through post #COVID19 economy development, health care, power generation etc. were discussed thoroughly,' the president tweeted.

Jaishankar told reporters that reflecting its 'Neighbourhood First' policy, India has supported Sri Lanka’s efforts to tackle COVID through timely medical assistance.

'We are now looking at post-COVID cooperation and I carry back with me Sri Lanka’s interest in accessing vaccines from India,' said Jaishankar, who is here on a three-day visit - his first foreign trip of the year. This is also the first by a foreign dignitary to Sri Lanka in the new year.

He said India sees international cooperation in this area as its 'duty'.

Sri Lankan leadership formally requested Indian assistance to obtain the COVID vaccine during meetings with Jaishankar here.

Assuring that India will always be a 'dependable partner and reliable friend' of Lanka, Jaishankar said the country is open to strengthening its relationship with the island nation on the basis of 'mutual trust, mutual interest, mutual respect and mutual sensitivity'.

He underlined that both the neighbours are now facing immediate challenges of post-COVID recovery. 'This is not just a public health issue but also a crisis of the economy,' he said.

'As two close neighbours with such obvious synergies, the potential for further strengthening our cooperation is enormous. Some of that may help provide immediate relief; others would have very positive medium-term implications for Sri Lanka’s development. There are many proposals under discussion, including in infrastructure, energy, and connectivity,' he said.

'We have discussed some important opportunities, in the course of yesterday and today, including in special zones for pharmaceutical manufacturing as also in tourism. I will ensure an early follow-up from the Indian side,' Jaishankar added.

His comments came in the backdrop of China's growing influence in various infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. China has invested over USD eight billion in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. Colombo handed over its Hambantota port to Beijing in 2017 as a debt swap.

He also spoke on the need to ensure aspirations of the minority Tamils are addressed within a united Sri Lanka.

'India has been strongly committed to the unity, stability and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Our support for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is long standing as indeed for an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony,' he said.

'It is in Sri Lanka's own interests that expectations of Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled. That applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lanka government on meaningful devolution including the 13th amendment of the Constitution,' he said.

Jaishankar also stressed on the cooperation between the two countries to ensure maritime security and safety.

'As maritime countries in the Indian Ocean, India and Sri Lanka have a shared interest in ensuring maritime security and safety. We have a long history of cooperation on it,' he said.

'We stand ready to enhance Sri Lanka’s capabilities to meet growing maritime and security challenges,” he said, describing Sri Lanka as India’s closest maritime neighbour and partner.

Jaishankar, who is expected to meet with the minister of fisheries Douglas Devananda, said he was looking forward to the early return of Indian fishermen detained in Lanka.

'We look forward to the early return of our fishermen from Sri Lanka,' Jaishankar said.

Indian fishermen, apprehended in Sri Lanka for allegedly poaching in its territorial waters, were provided consular assistance by the Consulate General of India in Jaffna last week.

Fishermen from both countries are arrested frequently for inadvertently trespassing into each other's waters.

On his part, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister conveyed his government's profound gratitude to Prime Minister Modi and the Indian government for the tremendous support India extended in the past several months to mitigate the adverse impact of the COVID pandemic.

'India's Neighbourhood First Policy has made a positive impact on the health sector and economy during this period of unprecedented crisis,” he said. PTI CORR SCY ZH AKJ AKJ