Only a day after Prime Minister Imran Khan concluded his maiden visit to Sri Lanka – a first by any head of government since Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office, a notification emerged, allowing for the burial of Muslim dead bodies which had earlier been banned in the island nation due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The changes made by the Sri Lankan government to the Quarantine and Prevention of Disease Ordinance (Chapter 222), paving the way for the burial of Muslim Covid-19 victims has put to rest the assertion that PM Imran Khan’s planned address to the Sri Lankan parliament was abruptly cancelled over concerns that he might use the opportunity to talk about diminishing Muslim rights in Sri Lanka. The latest development is not only being hailed as a major foreign policy achievement of PM Khan, but it has also vindicated his position as a champion of Muslim rights around the world.
Some experts have argued that PM Khan’s visit was rich in symbolism but lacked substance. Without doubt, the scope and range of the Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) signed have exposed deficiencies in the planned economic engagement in the foreseeable future. The two countries signed five MoUs, among which three were at the university level. Although the two sides stressed achieving the target of $1 billion bilateral trade annually – no specific policy direction in terms of realizing it was evident from the agreements.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka have held a traditional, long-standing bilateral relationship, where they have come to each other’s aid during testing times. Despite that, their ties didn’t evolve into a wide-ranging trade relationship. According to Pakistan’s central bank data, in the last fiscal year, the bilateral trade stood at $359 million, much less than the potential, which is $2 billion annually. If the history of bilateral relationship is anything to go by, high-level exchanges have remained a hallmark of this friendship. This is the fourth such engagement in the last few months since the two countries’ foreign secretaries met in December.
At this stage, the critical question to ask is: Was it another one of those symbolic high-level engagements or did the two countries actually achieve something substantial here?
That PM Khan took a high-powered delegation comprising important ministers and businessmen on the trip manifested that it was not for any political mileage at home or settling score with the eastern neighbour. Instead, for him, it was all business. Undertaking such a trip when Covid-19 still rages on highlights the importance that Pakistan attaches to its relationship with Sri Lanka.
During the two-day visit, various delegation level talks were held to identify avenues for expanding the scope of cooperation in various fields, including trade, investment, education, science and technology, and defence. Interactions between business delegations from the two countries took place at the business and investment forum. The two sides also agreed to strengthen ties in the tourism sector.
While offering to open important Buddhist sites in Pakistan for tourism activities, Prime Minister Khan told delegates at the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference in Colombo, “Pakistan has probably the most undiscovered religious tourism. For people in Sri Lanka, what is of great interest is the Gandhara Buddhist civilization. We have discovered various new sites for tourists to visit Pakistan.”
But the most important announcement came when PM Khan, during a joint press conference with his Sri Lankan counterpart, invited Sri Lanka to benefit from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The move is aligned with Pakistan’s long-term hopes to link the ports of Karachi and Gwadar with Colombo and Hambantota, which will boost bilateral trade and allow Sri Lanka to connect with the landlocked Central Asian States.
Sri Lanka’s participation in CPEC (if materialized) will be a huge achievement for Pakistan in the regional context – as the country proactively fosters economic ties with South Asian countries amid a worsening of ties with long-time rival India. A former Pakistani diplomat Rafiuzzaman Siddiqui told Anadolu Agency, “This visit has its own significance as it took place at a time when diplomatic relations between Colombo and New Delhi are strained.”
PM Khan’s decision to provide Rs. 52 million for the promotion of sports in Sri Lanka and 100 scholarships in the field of medicine to Sri Lankan students as part of the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Higher Education Cooperation Programme (PSLHECP) has projected Pakistan as a viable economic and human development partner that the island nation could rely on, while deferring India’s conditional aid.
Cooperation on the defence and security front was one of the highlights of the visit. Pakistan extended a $50 million defence credit line facility to Sri Lanka. The two sides inked agreements for increased intelligence sharing and expertise on anti-terrorism and anti-crime operations, including narcotics control and human trafficking. The mutual desire to promote peace and prosperity in South Asia through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has not only reaffirmed Pakistan’s long-standing stance of strengthening SAARC for the mutual benefit of member countries, but has dealt a blow to India’s efforts to isolate Pakistan in the region.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Sri Lanka visit carried with it almost no price to pay but immense benefits to reap. Foremost, it has allowed Pakistan to demonstrate its regional preeminence to India and indicated a significant shift in the country’s foreign policy, where traditional alliances have been overshadowed by a proactive economic diplomacy.
Shahmir Niazi is a Sub-Editor and Research Associate with Global Village Space with deep interest in international relations and technological developments. Views expressed here are his personal opinions and may not necessarily align with GVS Editorial policy. He can be reached at his twitter handle: @Shahmir_Niazi