COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — India’s prime minister emphasized common heritage with Sri Lanka on Friday as he tries to woo the island neighbor that’s become an important cog in China’s plans for control of the Indian Ocean.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a speech in the Sri Lankan capital marking the International Day of Vesak, the remembrance of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death as part of his two-day visit to the country. He later went to meet tea-plantation workers with Indian ancestry.

Modi said that the friendship between India and Sri Lanka was “etched in time by the ‘Great Master,'” a reference to the Buddha, whose religion spread from modern-day India to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

“Buddhism imparts an ever present radiance to our relationship,” Modi said in his speech in Colombo. “It draws its strength as much through our interconnected values of Buddhism as it does from the limitless possibilities of our shared future. Ours is a friendship that lives in the hearts of our people and in the fabric of our societies.”

Modi’s emphasis on a common Buddhist heritage and shared history appears to be part of a new strategy of seeking untapped avenues to strengthen relations with Sri Lanka, which sits just 32 kilometers (20 miles) off India’s east coast.

It is also seen an attempt to build confidence among Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese Buddhists who have viewed India with suspicion over its interest in resolving a decades-old conflict with minority Tamils. India is home to 65 million Tamils who have family and linguistic ties with Sri Lankan Tamils.

China has also been seeking to court Sri Lanka, using trade deals and infrastructure pacts to build influence. China unnerved India by building a sea port on Sri Lanka’s southern tip, a part of Beijing’s so called string-of-pearls plan for a line of ports stretching from its waters all the way to the Persian Gulf.

Sri Lanka’s government has tried to balance both Asian giants since coming to power in 2015. It withdrew a previous agreement to give China part of an artificial island it is building for Sri Lanka.

After Friday’s speech, Modi traveled to Dickoya town in central Sri Lanka, an area surrounded by lush tea plantations, to open an Indian-funded hospital.

He then went for the first-ever meeting of an Indian leader with tea plantation workers of Sri Lanka whose ancestors arrived in the country from India nearly 200 years ago. Modi promised to build them 10,000 more homes in addition to the 4,000 houses already being constructed with Indian aid.

Modi also announced the commencement of direct flights from Colombo to Varanasi in northern India, where thousands of Sri Lankan pilgrims travel every year to visit places connected to Buddha’s life. He later worshipped at the temple of Buddha’s tooth relic in the central town of Kandy.

Modi was scheduled to return to India on Friday night. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will travel to China on Saturday with a high level delegation to participate in the Belt and Road Forum on China’s envisaged plan for a wider global trade network.


Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.