India looking at post-COVID cooperation with Sri Lanka: Jaishankar

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Colombo, Jan 6 (PTI) Asserting that the coronavirus pandemic has not been able to dent the bilateral relationship between India and Sri Lanka, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said on Wednesday that the two countries are now looking at post-COVID cooperation.

Speaking at a joint media briefing with his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena, Jaishankar said the COVID pandemic has given the two sides an opportunity to collaborate even further.

'It (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 the watermark of our relationship in 2020,' he said.

Jaishankar is visiting Colombo over three months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa held the virtual summit in September during which the two sides agreed to further expand ties in a range of areas such as anti-terror cooperation, maritime security and trade and investment.

'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.

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

Jaishankar 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.

Assuring that India will be a 'dependable and reliable partner' 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 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 thirteenth amendment of the Constitution,' he said.

His remarks assume significance in the backdrop of moves by the ruling Sri Lanka People's Party (SLPP) allies to mount a public campaign for abolition of Sri Lanka’s provincial councils system. The SLPP’s Sinhala majority hardliners have been advocating a total abolition of the island’s provincial council system established in 1987.

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 had met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his counterpart Gunawardena before the press conference and was expected to meet with the minister of fisheries Douglas Devananda later, 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.

The Indian High Commission here said it was in touch with the Sri Lankan Government to facilitate the early release of the detained fishermen.

India and Sri Lanka last week held through video conferencing a meeting of the joint working group on fisheries and discussed the issues related to fishermen and the ways to overcome challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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,” Gunawardena said.

Jaishankar earlier met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and discussed cooperation for post-COVID health and economic recovery.

'Pleased to call on President @GotabayaR. Conveyed warm greetings from PM @narendramodi. Discussed cooperation for post-Covid health and economic recovery. India will be a reliable partner in Sri Lanka's development,' he tweeted.

Jaishankar thanked his Lankan counterpart for his hospitality and said they reviewed bilateral cooperation and 'will work closely to fulfil the vision of our leaders.' PTI CORR SCY ZH AKJ ZH ZH