By B. Raman
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan visited Sri Lanka from November 27 to 30, 2010, at the invitation of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Among those who accompanied him were Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, his Defence Minister, and Saleem Mandviwala, Chairman of the Investment Board of the Government of Pakistan. He was also accompanied by a delegation of Pakistani businessmen.
In an article on the visit titled “A new dawn in Pak-Lanka ties”, the “Daily Times” of Lahore said on December 6: “In the past, Pakistan helped the Sri Lankan state for three reasons. First, increasing Pakistan’s ability to participate in South Asian politics and posing itself as a counter-balance to India. Second, increasing its value in the region. Third, fighting Tamil militant forces, which are considered a product of Indian intelligence agencies.”
Pakistan’s value for Sri Lanka in the past came from its willingness to supply heavy equipment such as multi-barrel artillery guns and shells to the Sri Lankan Army for use against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It also helped the Sri Lankan Air Force in the servicing of its aircraft used against the LTTE. The heavy military equipment supplied by Pakistan and China helped the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in their operations against the LTTE.
Now that the LTTE has been defeated and practically destroyed by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, Sri Lanka does not have the same pressing need for military equipment from Pakistan as it had in the past. Despite this, Pakistan is interested in selling to Sri Lanka military equipment manufactured by it with Chinese assistance. This was one of the subjects discussed with Rajapaksa. The Pakistani Defence Minister accompanied Zardari to assist him in these discussions. Qureshi was reported to have told Pakistani journalists accompanying Zardari that Sri Lanka evinced interest in the purchase of the Pakistani al-Khalid Main Battle Tanks, light weapons and ammunition, and the JF-17 Thunder aircraft jointly produced by Pakistan and China.
The two leaders are reported to have agreed to enhance intelligence-sharing in matters relating to terrorism. Zardari reportedly offered to train Sri Lankan police and other security officials in counter-terrorism.
Sri Lanka has entered the post-insurgency reconstruction period and is in need of assistance for economic re-construction. Pakistan, whose economy is in a bad shape, is not in a position to help Sri Lanka either financially or through other means. One of the purposes of Zardari’s visit was to explore the possibility of Pakistan being associated with some of the reconstruction projects of China in Sri Lanka—-one of the examples of such association being China buying from Pakistan its requirement of cement for its projects in Sri Lanka. Qureshi told Pakistani pressmen that China-Sri Lanka relations were gaining strength and this would be good for the benefit of the three countries. The idea of Pakistan and China co-operating in jointly assisting South Asian countries has also been taken up by Islamabad in respect of Afghanistan. Islamabad sees it as a way of counter-balancing Indian influence in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
According to Saleem Mandviwala, Pakistan has offered a soft credit of US $ 200 million to Sri Lanka for facilitating its exports and barter trade. After Zardari’s meeting with Rajapaksa on November 28, Pakistani officials told their correspondents that the two Governments had agreed to expand their relationship from defence cooperation to an “overall comprehensive engagement” involving trade, communications and culture. They said that the two Governments had identified cement, sugar, dairy production, chemical plants, textiles, tourism and pharmaceuticals as potential areas of mutually beneficial collaborative projects. During the visit, the two delegations inked three agreements on waiving off visas for officials and diplomats, cooperation in customs matters and strengthening cultural exchanges and a Memorandum of Understanding on agricultural co-operation.
A joint statement issued at the end of the visit said that the two countries have agreed to establish a multi-faceted partnership in security, trade, tourism and culture and to promote a dialogue on security and defence issues relevant to their bilateral relationship, through high-level contacts between the defence forces and the training of security forces personnel. They agreed to promote active cooperation in countering the menace of narcotics and illicit trafficking of narcotic substances and to establish mechanisms and modalities for such cooperation.
It was announced at the end of the visit that the National Bank of Pakistan will be opening a branch in Colombo and that the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) will be re-starting its flights to Colombo from March next. The Sri Lankan Airways presently has three flights a week to Karachi. These decisions could have security implications for India. The transit of terrorists trained in Pakistan to South India via Colombo will be further facilitated and Colombo could become an additional centre —-after Kathmandu— for the dissemination of Indian currency notes counterfeited by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The two countries presently have a Free Trade Agreement covering goods only signed in 2002. Bilateral trade has doubled from $150 million to $300 million per annum during the last three years They are holding talks on extending it to cover services too. Qureshi said that the next stage could be negotiations on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.