COLOMBO – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed Sunday to strengthen cooperation on maritime security at a time when China is expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean country.
According to a joint statement issued after their meeting in Colombo, the two leaders agreed to launch intergovernmental talks on marine pollution and environmental protection, while Abe announced that Japan will study the provision of patrol ships to Sri Lanka so that the island country can boost its security capabilities.
Sri Lanka has geographical importance for Japan as imports of oil from the Middle East are transported via the Indian Ocean. Abe’s visit to the country is the first by an incumbent Japanese prime minister in 24 years.
The two leaders also agreed to promote cooperation between Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Sri Lanka Navy.
“Our two countries, as maritime nations, recognize the importance of ensuring maritime cooperation and security,” Rajapaksa said after the meeting.
“I am pleased to note the close interaction between the defense establishments of our countries on this aspect.”
Rajapaksa also asked for more Japanese investment to build ports and harbors in the island nation, a statement from his office said. China currently dominates in this area after it finished construction of a $500 million deep-sea port in the capital, Colombo, last year.
China is increasingly asserting its influence in the Indian Ocean, with Sri Lanka a midway point on one of the world’s busiest international shipping lanes.
China also built another port in 2010 in the island’s south, sparking fears Beijing was building a ring of influence around traditional regional superpower and rival India.
After talks with Rajapaksa, Abe addressed a business forum attended by heads of several major Japanese companies and stressed his intention to increase maritime cooperation with the island.
“It is my intention to increase cooperation (with Sri Lanka) in the maritime area for open and safe seas,” he said.
Abe visited a Buddhist temple just outside Colombo on Monday before leaving the island, which was visited by his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, in 1957.
Abe’s Sri Lanka tour follows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Tokyo this month during which the two countries, which both have prickly relations with giant neighbor China, declared they will raise ties to a “new level.”
Relations between Japan and China are currently mired in a bitter dispute over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
During Sunday’s meeting, Abe urged Sri Lanka to increase reconciliation with the island’s ethnic Tamil minority following the end of the decades-long separatist conflict.
“The president and I also reconfirmed the importance of Sri Lanka’s national reconciliation after the conflict and engagement with the international community,” Abe said in a brief statement following the talks.
Sri Lanka has been under intense international pressure over war crimes allegedly committed by the military against Tamils during the war.
The U.N. rights body in March ordered an international panel to investigate charges that Sri Lanka’s security forces killed at least 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of the conflict.
Before arriving, Abe said in a local newspaper interview that he hopes Sri Lanka can achieve “true national reconciliation” by addressing war crimes issues.
Japan is Sri Lanka’s largest single donor of foreign aid and remained neutral at the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in March when the body ordered an investigation into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes.
On Sunday, Rajapaksa met Abe at Colombo international airport, whose expansion Japan is funding through a $330 million loan.
Abe announced Japan is helping Sri Lanka set up a new digital television broadcast system, and pledged support for upgrading the island’s domestic road transport sector.
On Saturday, during his visit to Bangladesh, Abe won Dhaka’s support for Tokyo’s bid for a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Dhaka will withdraw its candidacy in favor of Tokyo in view of Japan’s “continued and strong support in Bangladesh’s development process.”
Abe’s visits to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka bring to 49 the number of countries he has visited since taking office in December 2012 — the most for any Japanese prime minister.