‘Sri Lanka can proceed on proposed ETCA at its own comfortable pace’- Senior Indian govt. official

Without any set targets to ink the pact

NEW DELHI: As Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner, India remains consistent in its position that the proposed Economic and Technology Cooperative Agreement (ETCA) should proceed at a pace Colombo is comfortable with, sans any set targets for the signing of the bilateral pact, says Binoy George, Deputy Secretary (Sri Lanka Desk), at ‘Shashtri Bhawan’, Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.

“We are content with following a time-line Sri Lanka is comfortable with in signing ETCA, which Colombo has shown an intent of inking by the end of this year”, he told a delegation of visiting senior Sri Lankan journalists at the Ministry in the Indian capital last week.

As guests of the Indian government, the delegation was in New Delhi as part of an extensive familiarization tour, which covered many regions of this giant South Asian country of 1.25 billion people.

Emphasizing that the proposed ETCA addressed issues beyond the Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which benefited both countries enormously, George noted that the ongoing negotiations can be seen in the larger context of enhanced cooperation and connectivity between the two nations.

He said that in recent years there has been a lot of close interaction with the political leadership in Colombo to address some of the key issues. “With a multifaceted partnership, India’s relationship with Sri Lanka is at an all time high”.

“There are serious negotiations on the Sri Lankan side to make this bilateral trade agreement a reality”, he underscored, while pointing out that “both Sri Lanka and India are well aware of the implications”.

Responding to a question on India’s “big brother approach”, the high-ranking External Affairs Ministry official said that over the past nine months, the use of the term “big brother” has not been heard. What exists now is mutual cooperation.

Asked whether New Delhi is “concerned” over Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port deal with China, George replied: “China is a matter for Sri Lanka. We never see our relationship (with Sri Lanka) through the prism of another country. Our relationship is on Sri Lanka’s own merit”.

He said that China is an important economic partner of Sri Lanka in the ongoing development process. As for India, China is also equally important as one of the biggest trading partners.

Asked by The Sunday Island about India’s interest in acquiring the Trincomalee oil tanks, the official clarified that the envisaged plan now is to collaborate with Sri Lanka to jointly develop the farm, which continue to remain idle. This oil storage facility can be jointly developed as energy security is a key factor.

In 2003, a tripartite agreement was signed between the Sri Lankan Government, the LIOC and the CPC covering the entire tank farm — upper and lower. India now wants to move forward on the project as a joint collaboration, said Niteen S. Yeola, Head, Press, Information & Culture of the High Commission of India in Colombo.

“Since 2003, nothing has moved, though India continues to pay the rent. Sri Lanka took a step back from the original position. As previous efforts have failed, we said let’s develop these oil tanks together. India is willing to invest under a joint development plan without allowing the farm to remain idle any longer. At present, the oil tanks are of no value to either country”, he noted.

Binoy George: Energy security is a vital input of any country. The joint development of this facility can cater more to Sri Lanka’s energy sector.

On the proposed Trincomalee port project, he said that discussions have been continuing and a suggestion that this key facility can be developed as a joint venture is being looked at. Feasibility studies are also ongoing with one of them being done by Singapore.

With a cultural heritage spanning more than 2,500 years, the close rapport between India and Sri Lanka can be designated as a “civilization relationship”, the senior official outlined. “Culture and history are vital elements for both nations, with geographic proximity intertwined for the future as well”.

Proximity brings a certain level of affinity between the two countries with shared natural resources and global commerce. The Indian ocean is a rich source of natural and marine resources. Sri Lanka, an advocate of ‘blue economy’, recently hosted an Indian Ocean conference in Colombo with the participation of 32 countries under the auspices of the country’s Prime Minister, he recalled.

George said that over the past two and a half years, there were at least 10 high level visits to both countries. Indian premier Narendra Modi visited Colombo in the backdrop of many visits by Sri Lanka’s President, Prime Minister and later by the new Foreign Minister to New Delhi.

“You name an area, there is cooperation between both countries. Sky is the limit for our cooperation. We have even started cooperating on space technology. When it comes to diplomatic relationship, what is unique is that we have a robust trade partnership”, he noted.

“With such a high level of integration and interdependence, we cannot look at the ground situation in narrow terms. India has embarked on many projects in consultation with the government of Sri Lanka, which has set the priorities based on the needs of the people”, he elaborated.

He said the Indian economy is growing fast and the country has one of the biggest export markets, which offers immense potential for Sri Lanka and other countries. As Prime Minister Modi observed “together we progress”.

India cooperates with Sri Lanka not only on trade and commerce but also in the fields of science and technology, nuclear science, medicine and research and development, George said.

“Our relationship goes beyond transactions. India has stepped in to help Sri Lanka at times of natural disasters. Relief operations were launched during the 2015/17 floods and landslides. In addition, drought relief was extended. We believe that anything happening in a neighboring area has ramifications”, the senior official observed.

Abu George, official spokesman of the Ministry was also associated with the news conference.

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