In diplomatic parlance every visit by the state head is viewed through the point of view of the timing, content and the outcome.
Given that Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been important strategic partners in the south Asian region the visit of Pakistan PM Imran Khan should throw no surprises, but the timing amidst the pandemic have reasons to elaborate upon.
Pakistan premier’s visit to Sri Lanka came almost at the same time when United Nation’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was holding its first session of 2021 and it was facing a crucial test in taking action for protecting vulnerable Sri Lankan minorities and upholding international law in this regard.
Why the timing of Imran’s visit to Sri Lanka is important
The timing of Imran Khan visit is also strategically important for Sri Lanka as Indian leaders had committed to support the rights of minority Tamils in Sri Lanka during UNHRC session. The visit of Imran Khan has been viewed as an effort by Sri Lankan government to build in support on its side from Pakistan in UNHRC session.
Sri Lanka had drawn flak from the international community for not only the human rights violation inflicted upon Tamil community but also for recent controversies of denying the religious rights to burial to minority-Muslim-community members who died due to covid 19 pandemic.
Sri Lanka had earlier revoked the decision to cremate the dead Muslims who died due to covid 19 which was lauded by Imran Khan through his twitter, although it later cancelled it.
The timing is also important in view of the geopolitical reasons for both Sri Lanka and Pakistan although Sri Lanka tried to pull strings on Pakistan by scripting Imran Khan’s visit to suit its own comforts. This was evident from the way Imran Khan’s address to Sri Lanka’s Parliament was abruptly cancelled on the pretext of security due to covid 19 related reasons.
Although Imran khan specifically stated after his meeting with the Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapakse that his maiden visit aimed at strengthening the bilateral relationship, but he did not let go the opportunity of raising contentious issue of Kashmir from Sri Lanka and used the visit to put its strong self-forward vis a vis Kashmir to gain international attention.
Should India worry with the reference of Kashmir and CPEC lobbying by Pakistan on Sri Lanka land?
Reference of Kashmir by Imran Khan during his Sri Lanka visit also holds important in the wake of India-Pakistan reaching on an agreement for ceasefire on LOC in Kashmir exactly during the time of Imran’s visit. The timing of the joint statement in this regard on February 24 cannot be missed.
India on its part, assuming that Pakistan might use Sri Lankan land to play Kashmir card did not miss the opportunity to bring forth its diplomatic large heartedness before the world by giving special VVIP permission by allowing Imran Khan to fly through its air en-route to Sri Lanka.
In a way Imran Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka was full of covert diplomacy. Imran Khan used it as an opportunity to sell of the idea of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) too. Imran Khan stated categorically that he was looking forward to enhancing trade ties with Sri Lanka through multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
CPEC which connects Gwadar Port in Balochistan with China’s Xinjiang province is the flagship project of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ambitious BRI. Imran Khan’s emphasis on promoting trade ties with Sri Lanka through CPEC is important given the fact that India has been severely critical of $50 billion CPEC, which is part of BRI that passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
So, for Pakistan, the visit has good outcomes in terms of pushing forward the BRI and CPEC agenda which has China as a strong partner, besides playing ‘well’ the Kashmir card timing it right with the joint statement of ceasefire at LOC with India.
It is also important to take into account here the $50 million defence credit line facility by Pakistan to Sr Lanka when Pakistan itself is going through economic distress due to covid 19 pandemic.
On Sri Lanka’s part, beside the regular trade and business engagements deals, managing Imran Khan for avoiding the mention of ongoing controversies over the forced cremations of the island’s minority Muslim community members who died due to covid 19 was indeed a winning outcome.
The visit also holds significance for the geo-political reasons in South and Central Asian region. For China, which has been deepening its roots in smaller countries through its BRI initiative, country like Pakistan emphasising on CPEC on foreign land is important for two reasons-that Pakistan is coming out as an open partner of China and also pitching a case on its behalf; it also holds importance how the politics of Indian Ocean Region might change in the future where India has an important strategic interest.