Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting Sri Lanka on May 11-12 to attend the International Vesak Day festival, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. His trip is part of India’s attempt to leverage its cultural soft power as the birthplace of Buddhism to reaffirm its influence in its Buddhist majority island neighbor at a time when China is using its economic influence to make inroads in Sri Lanka. At the center of Beijing’s efforts is its financing of mega-development projects under its signature One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative, such as a controversial deepwater port project in the southern Sri Lankan city of Hambantota.
As part of his carefully orchestrated visit, Modi will highlight India’s religious and ethnic ties to Sri Lanka by visiting the Temple of the Tooth, a Buddhist holy site, and by inaugurating a hospital built with Indian funds in the south-central town of Dickoya, home to a community of ethnic Tamil tea plantation workers of Indian origin. The visit to Sri Lanka comes just ahead of China’s May 14 Belt-and-Road Summit. While 28 heads of state will be in attendance, including Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, India thus far has not confirmed its attendance.
India sees Sri Lanka as falling squarely within its sphere of influence. As a result, New Delhi worries that Chinese infrastructure investments in nations along the Indian periphery, including the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, could pave the way for a substantially larger Chinese military presence in South Asia. For Indian strategists, these fears were confirmed in September 2014 when a Chinese submarine docked in the Chinese-operated South Container Terminal in Colombo, just days ahead of a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Sri Lanka. Modi complained to then-Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa about the move, but another Chinese submarine and a warship docked in Colombo the following month. On May 11, however, unnamed Sri Lankan officials told Reuters that the government had rejected China’s request to dock a submarine in Colombo this month.
Like China, India is also seeking to cultivate influence by pouring money into Sri Lanka, despite steeper financial constraints. But both countries are facing political currents in Sri Lanka that will continue to complicate the depth of their involvement in the country. On April 24, for example, workers from Sri Lanka’s state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation went on a day-long strike to protest Wickremesinghe's proposal to grant operational rights for 84 oil tank storage facilities in the country’s eastern port city of Trincomalee to Lanka IOC, a subsidiary of the Indian Oil Corporation. The workers complained that the move would give India undue influence over Sri Lankan fuel prices. Bowing to their pressure, Wickremesinghe didn’t sign the deal during his trip to New Delhi, though it’s likely the topic will be brought up with Modi during their talks. China’s attempt to gain a 99-year lease on an industrial park adjacent to the port project in Hambantota — Rajapaksa's hometown — sparked violent protests and a backlash in parliament in January, fueling claims that Beijing is attempting to establish a Chinese colony on the diminutive, but strategically valuable island-nation.