Japan, Sri Lanka leaders agree stronger maritime links

COLOMBO (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Sri Lanka's president agreed Sunday to forge stronger maritime links between their two countries in a move partly aimed at countering China's influence in the region.

Abe held talks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse shortly after arriving from Bangladesh as part of a regional tour also designed to strengthen economic ties. Abe, the first Japanese premier to visit Sri Lanka in 24 years, announced he would donate patrol boats to Sri Lanka's coast guard, while the two leaders agreed to establish a joint dialogue on "maritime and oceanic issues".

"Our two countries, as maritime nations, recognise the importance of ensuring maritime cooperation and security," Rajapakse said after the meeting. "I am pleased to note the close interaction between the defence establishments of our countries on this aspect."

Rajapakse also asked for more Japanese investment to build ports and harbours on the island, a statement from his office said. China currently dominates in this area, with a US$500 million (Sing$627 million) deep sea port opened in 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.

Abe's 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 neighbour China, declared they would raise ties to a "new level". Relations between Japan and China are currently mired in bitter disputes over territory in the East and South China Seas.

During Sunday's meeting, Abe also 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 after the talks.

Sri Lanka has been under intense international pressure over war crimes allegedly committed by the military against Tamils during the war. The UN 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 hoped Sri Lanka could 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 UN Human Rights Council meeting in March when the body ordered an investigation into Sri Lanka's alleged war crimes.

On Sunday, Rajapakse met Abe at Colombo international airport whose expansions Japan is funding through a US$330 million loan. Abe announced he was 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 in Bangladesh, Abe won Dhaka's support for Tokyo's bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Dhaka would withdraw its candidacy in favour of Tokyo in view of Japan's "continued and strong support in Bangladesh's development process".