Modi promotes neighborhood-first policy in Sri Lanka visit

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Sri Lanka on Sunday for a brief visit as part of his first overseas tour since reelection that emphasizes India’s “neighborhood-first” policy.

Modi was received at the airport by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He will also hold talks with President Maithripala Sirisena and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is scheduled to meet the Indian community in Sri Lanka before returning home later on Sunday.

India has been concerned with Sri Lanka and the neighboring Maldives leaning toward China, which is seeking more influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Modi arrived from the Maldives, where the new president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, pledged closer ties with New Delhi in a break from his predecessor’s pro-Beijing policy.

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Sri Lanka has leased a Chinese-built port located near the world’s busiest east-west shipping route to a Chinese firm in 2017 for 99 years in a bid to recover from the heavy burden of repaying a Chinese loan to build the facility.

Hambantota port is part of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative that stretches from Chinese waters to the Persian Gulf. In March this year, China also agreed to provide a $989 million loan to Sri Lanka to build an expressway that will connect the island nation’s tea-growing central region to the southern port.

Sri Lanka has been trying to balance both Asian giants. Officials say the port’s security will be handled by the government in an attempt to allay fears that it could be used by China as a military hub.

In an apparent bid to offset Chinese influence, India has been funding the construction of houses, facilities at universities and a free ambulance service. India also extended credit facilities to develop rail transport and a water project.

“Obviously although the visit will be short, there will be a review of the relationship and identification of how we move ahead,” Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said ahead of Modi’s trip.

Since first becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi has stressed a “neighborhood first” policy for the South Asian region, promising neighbors prioritized benefits of India’s economic growth.

His last visit to Sri Lanka was in May 2017.

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