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India seals nuclear deal with Sri Lanka in a bid to keep China away

NEW DELHI: India on Monday sealed a nuclear energy agreement with Sri Lanka, its first breakthrough with the new government of the tiny Indian Ocean Island where China has been building ports and highways in a diplomatic push in recent years.

Four agreements were inked in total and they are on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, on cultural cooperation, a MoU on establishment of Nalanda University, and a MoU on cooperation in agriculture.

Under the nuclear deal, India will help Sri Lanka build its nuclear energy infrastructure, including training of personnel, the Indian foreign ministry said. Later, India could also sell light small-scale nuclear reactors to Sri Lanka which wants to establish 600 MW of nuclear capacity by 2030, a Sri Lankan official and an Indian analyst said.

The deal came as Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena began a visit to India, his first trip abroad since he swept to power in January, which has provided New Delhi with an opening to repair ties that had become tense under his predecessor.

“The bilateral agreement on civil nuclear cooperation is yet another demonstration of our mutual trust,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said while addressing the media after the delegation level talks held at Hyderabad House in the national capital.

He said it is the first such agreement that Sri Lanka has signed and it “opens new avenues for cooperation, including in areas like agriculture and healthcare”.

Both sides held talks on the issue of peace and reconciliation process in the island nation over a working lunch. Congratulating Sirisena on his Jan 8 election, Modi said, “India is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour and friend. The goodwill and support of the people of India will always be with you.”

Modi also assured Sirisena of ‘India’s commitment to its development partnership’ which would continue to cover areas, including infrastructure. On the ticklish fishermen’s issue, Modi said both leaders “attach the highest importance to the issue” and have agreed for a “constructive and humanitarian approach” to it.

India had grown increasingly wary of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pursuit of closer ties with China, which became a key supporter of the island's economy after its 26-year-civil war ended in 2009.

China has built a seaport in the south of the country and signed a deal to develop a $1.5 billion port next to the commercial port in Colombo, raising fears Beijing is seeking influence in the island state with which New Delhi has had historical ties.