COLOMBO: After coming to power, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had been busy mending fences with countries in the West and South Asia that got snubbed during the rule of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) shakes hands with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on Jan. 5

While renewing Sri Lanka’s ties with the world, they paid special attention to balance their ties between India and Pakistan.

As part of this balancing act, Sri Lanka recently hosted Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on an official three-day visit, which came just months after Indian Premier Narendra Modi visited the island nation.

Such acts often lead to complications as when India pressured the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration against the signing of a $400-million agreement with Pakistan for the purchase of JF-17 Thunder fighter jets.

The agreement was expected to be signed during Sharif’s visit to Colombo, which ended on January 6.

However, Sri Lanka and Pakistan signed eight other agreements that covered areas like health, science and technology, trade, statistic sharing, gem and jewelry, money laundering and terrorism financing, and culture. The two countries are also working towards increasing the annual bilateral trade to $1 billion from the current $325 million.

Addressing a forum in Colombo, Sharif said: “Sri Lanka enjoys the exceptional position of being the first country with which Pakistan entered into a Free Trade Agreement. The present volume of trade of approximately $325 million, however, does not reflect the vast potential available in our respective economies.

“When President Sirisena visited Pakistan in April 2015, we decided to set a bilateral trade target of US $1 billion.  To realize this objective, both countries have to work with greatest resolve and commitment. Many business delegations from Pakistan have visited Sri Lanka and vice versa. My commerce minister’s recent visit to Sri Lanka is a testimony to our serious endeavors to achieve the trade target of $1 billion. My own visit is aimed at enhancing and energizing the economic content of our relationship.”

Sri Lanka had entered into a Free Trade Agreement with Pakistan in 2005.

Although Colombo could not go ahead with the defense pact, it hailed Islamabad’s efforts in helping it combat terrorism. At a meeting between Sirisena and Sharif, the Sri Lankan President appreciated Pakistan’s key role along with China in supplying them with weapons and aircraft to root out the menace posed by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 during the tenure of Rajapaksa.

Incidentally, just days after Sharif concluded his visit to Colombo, Indian foreign secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar arrived in Sri Lanka on a two-day official visit to review the bilateral relationship between India and Sri Lanka.

New Delhi has been pressuring Colombo to sign a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which Sri Lanka’s professional community is strongly opposed to.

While Wickremesinghe is firm on not signing CEPA with India, reports say the two governments may be signing a similar agreement under a new name Indo-Lanka Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA).

The ETCA allows free movement of IT professionals across the two countries. But this may lead to a large number of Indian IT professionals flocking to the island nation and impacting job opportunities for locals.

The apex body of professionals in Sri Lanka, the Organization of Professional Associations (OPA) which consists of some 46 associations, has expressed its deep concern over the proposed ETCA.

The deal is absolutely unnecessary as Sri Lanka has sufficient professional resources, the organization’s president Prof. Rohana Kuruppu said in a statement on January 26.

“Such an agreement to bring foreign professional services to the country can be detrimental to the local professional resource base,” he warned.

If any organization wants to hire foreign professional expertise for a particular job, it may be allowed on request on acceptable reasons for which no such bilateral deal is, however, warranted, the statement said.

The Sri Lanka Association of Software and Services Companies, an organization which looks after the interests of IT professionals in the country, too expressed concern over the proposed ECTA and said it will not support any agreement that is detrimental to the industry and the country.

Munza Mushtaq is a journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is the former news editor of two leading Sri Lankan newspapers; The Nation and the Sunday Leader. She writes extensively on Sri Lankan current affairs with special focus on politics, human rights and business issues. She is currently the Colombo-based correspondent for International News Services, the Los Angeles Times and the Nikkei Asian Review.

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