Removing their shirts and wearing traditional white veshtis, the shirtless men, carrying platters laden with fruit and puja offerings, entered the temple. Nothing unusual as it is the practice at Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, a temple near Jaffna in Sri Lanka. But the man who dressed as a devotee and led the others into the temple on Thursday stood out – Qi Zenhong, Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka.

A few days after announcing on Twitter that a Chinese solar company had found a new client in the Maldives because security concerns “of a” third party “had led to the suspension of its project on three islands off the peninsula of Jaffna, Ambassador Qi is on tour among the Tamils ​​of Sri Lanka – dominated the Northern Province, wooing an ethnic minority traditionally close to India.

His visit to the Jaffna Peninsula on Wednesday and Thursday and his awareness of a community that remains cold in the southern Sinhalese 12 years after the end of the ethnic war also came amid a difficult and bitter public context in Sri Lanka-China relations. following the cancellation by Colombo of an import of fertilizers.

In conversations with civil society representatives from Jaffna, Qi answered questions about the Sino-Indian rivalry in Sri Lanka, saying there was more geographic distance between India and Sri Lanka than between India and Sri Lanka. ‘India and China since the two countries share a border.

Rejecting the rivalry, he said the two countries were continually engaged in solving their problems. He even said that talking about “third party” pressure on Sri Lanka to cancel the solar farm on three islands off Jaffna was “false news”.

While this is not the first time that a Chinese diplomat has visited the Northern Province, it may be the first time that a Chinese ambassador has spent the night and engaged in such public diplomacy in the peninsula where India takes its diplomatic and political influence for granted. because of the links of history, language, culture which have remained strong despite Delhi having moved away from the Tamil separatist cause.

Chinese interests and its infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka have largely focused on southern Sinhala, not least because of Beijing’s close relationship with the Rajapaksas. As the Chinese built roads and houses in war-ravaged Tamil areas, Qi’s visit, which also included a visit to Vavuniya and Mannar districts, indicates a desire to expand engagement in the territory. where political and people-to-people ties with India are strong.

Among his stops in the peninsula was the historic Jaffna Library which was burnt down by a mob led by Sinhala politicians in 1983. There he donated laptops and computers and offered to help with digitization from the library. After its restoration in the 1990s, Delhi and the government of Tamil Nadu donated thousands of pounds to rebuild the collection. In 2015, an “India Corner” was inaugurated in the library.

The main livelihood of the people of Jaffna is fishing, and their rivalry with the fishermen of Tamil Nadu for scarce marine resources has eluded resolution. The Chinese envoy’s outreach on Wednesday included donations of fishing nets and dry rations worth $ 100,000 to members of the Federation of Fishermen’s Cooperative Unions. Sri Lankan Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Douglas Devananda, who is also a parliamentarian from Jaffna, accompanied Qi on the visit.

“So far, the Tamils ​​have not had much relationship with the Chinese. The visit could have been intended to improve relations with the Tamils, ”said Dharmalingam Sithadthan, member of parliament from Jaffna and head of the former militant group PLOTE.

In recent months, Tamils ​​have questioned signage in Sri Lanka which includes Mandarin but omitted Tamil even though it has official language status. Official sources said the Chinese wanted to be seen as making amends for it. The visit is seen as a message to Tamils ​​that they should treat China as a friend.

Some also see the visit as a signal to Sri Lankan leaders during a decline in relations after Colombo canceled the import of an organic fertilizer that failed local tests. In retaliation, China blacklisted the Sri Lankan People’s Bank for a “payment default” that the Chinese embassy called “vicious” in a tweet. China’s Ministry of Commerce said the default on the letter of credit caused huge losses for Chinese companies.

Sritharan Thirunavakkarasu, former EPRLF member and resident of Jaffna, said Qi’s visit was “unprecedented” by a Chinese diplomat for the envoy’s time on the peninsula and for the range of people he met. during the visit.

Qi spoke with government officials and members of civil society on how China could help increase employment opportunities in the Northern Province. One of the ideas in the discussions was shrimp farming.