COLOMBO: The US move to rope Sri Lanka into its Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor (IPEC) program may put pressure on Colombo to accept the Asian Development Bank-funded Indian project to build a bridge between India and Sri Lanka across the Palk Strait.
The communiqué issued at the conclusion of the first US-Lanka Strategic Dialogue held in Washington on Monday, said that the “United States encouraged Sri Lankan participation in its Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor initiative to increase economic connectivity among South Asian countries and with Southeast Asia, which is congruent with Sri Lanka’s participation in BIMSTEC and other forums.”
That “economic connectivity” also includes transit across borders, was clearly indicated by US Secretary of State John Kerry at the US-India Strategic Dialogue in 2013.
The Japanese-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is funding infrastructure projects all over South and South East Asia, had revived the idea of a bridge between India and Lanka as part of its cross-border highway connectivity project.
After India concluded the ADB-funded US$ 8 billion highways agreement with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal in June 2015, ADB top brass suggested to the Indian Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, that India have a road linkage with Lanka also. They also promised to allocate US$ 5.19 billion for the project.
Gadkari lapped up the idea and raised the matter when Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi in September 2015. How Wickremesinghe reacted to the suggestion is not known, but the official line in Colombo is that India has not officially raised the issue.
The Lankan government’s reserve is dictated by the exigencies of domestic politics where the very idea of a land bridge with India raises the hackles of nationalists who fear an invasion of Indians.
However, Lanka is likely to come under increasing pressure from the West to give up its reserve in such matters.
The West is looking to investing in the island and is counting on Lanka’s becoming a part of the Indian supply chain.
And the ADB is widening its footprint in the island with a fresh infrastructural aid package of US$ 2 billion announced on February 23 by its President, Takehiko Nakao.