Imran Khan Mahinda Rajapakse Pakistan Sri Lanka
PM Imran Khan during a joint press conference with his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa. The visit is aimed at strengthening bilateral relationship between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Image Credit: PID

Islamabad: Pakistan and Sri Lanka agreed to boost trade, tourism and defence ties during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first visit to the island nation.

The visit is aimed at “strengthening bilateral relationship” with Sri Lanka, “especially trade and economic ties through enhanced connectivity,” PM Imran Khan said during a joint press conference with his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapakse. The two leaders agreed to strengthen partnership in diverse areas, including trade and investment, agriculture, science and technology, tourism and culture, security and defence cooperation. MOUs on cooperation in the fields of tourism, investment, education, and technology were also signed during Khan’s two-day (February 23-34) visit to Colombo.

All-weather friendship

The Pakistani premier’s visit “symbolises the deep affinity” shared by the people of Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Rajapakse said, adding that the deep bilateral cooperation between the two countries has transformed into an “all-weather friendship, which has withstood the test of time.” He also said that there is a need to explore the untapped potential of Pakistan-Sri Lanka trade partnership. Pakistani premier’s visit with a high-powered business delegation demonstrates “promising signs of investments and commercial partnerships” for both economies at a time of financial uncertainty due to the pandemic.

Boost economic ties

Pakistan and Sri Lankan officials also agreed to bolster trade partnership to achieve the goal of US$ 1 billion bilateral trade target with the prompt implementation of the free trade agreement. Addressing the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference in Colombo, Khan invited the Sri Lankan business community to participate in the CPEC project that offers an enormous opportunity of connectivity to Central Asian markets. He also invited the Sri Lankan companies to benefit from the incentives offered in special economic zones (SEZs) of Pakistan.

In his meeting with the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapakse on Wednesday, Khan emphasised the importance of building “robust economic partnership” through increased bilateral trade, investments, and commercial interaction. He also called for improved regional cooperation through SAARC and the opportunities for regional prosperity through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Tourism and Buddhist heritage sites

To improve cultural and tourism ties between the two countries, Khan also invited the people of Sri Lanka to visit the sacred Buddhist sites in Pakistan, which is home to centuries-old civilisations. Rajapakse said that “Sri Lanka is grateful to Pakistan for agreeing to open the pilgrimage corridors for Sri Lankans to visit ancient Buddhist heritage sites in Pakistan.” Islamabad has also announced to establish the Asian Civilisation and Culture Centre at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy city of Sri Lanka.

Defence cooperation

Pakistan and Sri Lanka leaders also agreed to expand defence and security cooperation as PM Imran Khan announced a new $50 million defence credit line facility for Sri Lanka. The two sides will also bolster partnership through intelligence-sharing to fight terrorism, organised crime and drug trafficking.

Sports diplomacy and scholarships

Khan, who is best known in Sri Lanka as a cricket star, also held an interactive session with the sports community in Colombo and announced to offer Rs52 million for the promotion of sports in Sri Lanka. To boost youth exchanges, Pakistan will also offer 100 scholarships to the students of Sri Lanka in the field of medicine under the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Higher Education Cooperation Programme. “Pakistan’s support for the socio-economic development of Sri Lanka is in line with the vision of a peaceful neighbourhood,” Khan said.

Khan was accompanied by key ministers, including Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Commerce Adviser Abdul Razzak Dawood and Special Assistant Syed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari. During the visit, the Pakistani foreign minister Qureshi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena urged the need to enhance bilateral trade and investment opportunities and reaffirmed closer cooperation at the regional and international fora.