COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday that India's neighbors should be the first beneficiaries of the nation's economic progress as he sought to woo smaller Indian Ocean states away from increasing Chinese influence.
"The future of any country is influenced by the state of its neighbors," Modi said in his address to Parliament, hours after his arrival in Colombo.
"The future I dream for India is also a future that I want for our neighbors."
"The world sees India as the new frontier of economic opportunity. But, our neighbors should have the first claim on India," he said.
"I will be happy if India serves as a catalyst in the progress of our neighbors."
Modi said India has committed $1.6 billion in development assistance for Sri Lanka.
"Today, we have committed further assistance of up to $318 million to the railway sector," he said, promising to continue the development partnership. "And, we will do so with the same level of transparency that we expect in our own country," he added.
Modi visited Seychelles and Mauritius before Sri Lanka on his tour of Indian Ocean states. China in recent years heavily funded infrastructure development projects in these countries, making India apprehensive because it perceives the region to be its traditional territory of influence.
He avoided visiting the Maldives, which has a pro-China administration and where a pro-India opposition leader is being tried for terrorism.
Modi became the first Indian leader to visit Sri Lanka in 28 years, reciprocating the trip to India last month by Sri Lanka's new president.
Although divided by a strait just 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide, Sri Lanka and India kept distance over the past three decades. Their relations have been marred by the failed Indian peacekeeping attempt at the onset of Sri Lanka's civil war and more recently, Beijing's foray into India's neighborhood.
However Modi since his election last May has emphasized rally his neighbors.
Modi held bilateral talks with Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena, who made a departure from policies favoring Beijing and toward ethnic reconciliation with his country's Tamil minority, a sensitive issue in India-Sri Lanka relations.
"We have seen the relationship between our countries weakened during the time of some regimes. As a result, it took 28 years for this visit of an Indian prime minister to Sri Lanka," Sirisena said after the morning meeting with Modi.
He said he considered Modi's visit now was a blessing.
Modi in his speech to Parliament also invited Sri Lanka to have more regular state visits and work together to build trust and remain sensitive to each other's interest.
"I am conscious of the significance of this visit," Modi said in a statement following talks with Sirisena. "This is how it should be between neighbors. We should meet regularly. It helps us understand each other better find solutions to mutual concerns and move our relationship forward."
In 1987, India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arrived in Sri Lanka to sign a peace accord in an effort to end the Tamil uprising, which was then in its early years. Sri Lankan Tamils have linguistic and family connections with the sizable Tamil population in India.
It was a tumultuous period in relations as India was accused of training and arming the rebels, and then tried to mediate by sending a peacekeeping force, a mission that failed as the Indians were viewed with suspicion by both sides in the civil war.
During his visit, Gandhi narrowly escaped serious injury when a Sri Lankan sailor hit him with his rifle butt during a guard of honor inspection. Four years later, in 1991, the Tamil Tigers assassinated Gandhi during an election rally in southern India.
Since then, India had distanced itself from the Sri Lankan conflict, which China used to get closer to the island nation by supplying weapons and later securing a large presence through developing highways, a port and an airport.
Sri Lanka's new government has recently suspended the Chinese-funded $1.5 billion Colombo Port City project, citing environmental issues and alleged corruption. It was inaugurated in September during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who included Sri Lanka in a new maritime "Silk Road" linking the energy-rich Persian Gulf with China.
Modi will visit the war-scarred Tamil heartland in the north on Saturday to inaugurate a railway line rebuilt by India.