By Taryana Odayar, Features Editor.
On February 16th, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and newly elected Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena signed a bilateral agreement on civil nuclear cooperation, during Sirisena’s maiden foreign visit to India. This is the first nuclear agreement signed by Sri Lanka, and many political commentators have attributed the agreement as being symbolic of the new Sri Lankan administration’s pro-India approach. The agreement covers a wide spectrum of proposals, including Indian assistance in developing Sri Lanka’s civil nuclear energy infrastructure, the provision of expert-led training and knowledge sharing, as well as cooperation in nuclear and radiological disaster mitigation, radioactive waste management and environmental protection. The agreement also spurred discussions of increased defence and maritime security cooperation in the subcontinent, with Modi stating that, “India is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor and friend. I believe that our destinies are interlinked. Our security and prosperity are indivisible.”
Notably, India is amongst a handful of countries in the world with expertise in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are reactors producing under 300 MWs of electricity. Currently, India is offering both 220 and 540 MWe reactors for international exportation, following the lifting of an international embargo seven years ago which was placed on the country due to its atomic bomb tests in 1974 and 1998. Furthermore, according to the World Nuclear Association, there has recently been a “revival of interest in small and simpler units for generating electricity from nuclear power…to reduce the impact of capital costs and to provide power away from large grid systems.”
India and Sri Lanka have had a long and multifaceted foreign relations record, due largely to their close geographical proximity to each other as well as their shared religious practices and cultural norms. Former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that, “…it seems to me quite inevitable and right that there should be the closest relationship and cooperation between India and Lanka. Geography compels it. Our history and common culture make it inevitable. So I feel that neither India nor Lanka should take any step which comes in the way of impairing the cordial and fruitful relations.” Yet sharing the Indian Ocean as well as certain societal values does not necessarily equate a squeaky-clean foreign relations record. Just last year alone, Chinese submarines were reported to have docked twice in Colombo for replenishment purposes, resulting in vocal protests from the Indian administration since they were not notified in advance of the presence of Chinese submarines in such close proximity to their country. Furthermore, India has been growing alarmingly concerned over the billions of dollars being pumped into investment projects in Sri Lanka by China in what they feel is a bid to increase Chinese influence in the subcontinent. Just in the past five years alone, China has injected $4 billion dollars into the Sri Lankan economy by way of development projects. Furthermore, President Xi Jinping personally visited Sri Lanka last year to court Colombo’s approval for the development of a maritime trade route, becoming the first Chinese leader to visit the strategically located island in 28 years.
Previously under former Sri Lankan President Rajapakse, India had been affronted by his suggestion that Sri Lanka would seek help from Pakistan to build its reactors, especially given the fact that Pakistan’s reactors had been developed by Chinese companies. Currently, the most advanced and state-of-the-art Small Modular Reactor is located in China, namely the 210 MWe HTR-PM, which is being built by the nuclear power architect engineering company, Chinergy. Therefore it would have made economic sense for Sri Lanka to seek Chinese support in the building of its first nuclear reactor, and the fact that it didn’t, re-affirms political analysts’ suspicions that the nuclear pact with India was more symbolic of stronger ties between the two countries than anything else.
Indeed, Modi has been campaigning aggressively to boost India’s influence in the South Asian region, as a counterbalancing force to economic rival China. Consequently, Sri Lanka’s biggest challenge moving forwards will be improving ties with India whilst trying not to ruffle China’s feathers as the country is still in need of Chinese investment. Sri Lanka’s new administration under President Sirisena is therefore toeing a fine line, in its quest for greater political cohesion and economic integration with India and China, as well as its other South Asian neighbours.