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India and China flex muscles over Sri Lankan hub

20171103_MA-Sanjana-1_article_main_imageAt the eerily quiet Mattala Airport, on the forested southern coast of Sri Lanka, a battle between Asian superpowers is unfolding.

Few outside the country have heard of Mattala, and only one airline has been using the airport, located in Hambantota, 250km from Colombo, since it opened in March 2013. Now, however, Mattala is an object of contention between powerful domestic and foreign interests in the wake of a $290 million offer from the Indian government to take it over.

Negotiations on a 40-year lease are taking place just months after Beijing staked a nearby claim. In July, China leased Hambantota port for 99 years at a cost of $1.1 billion. China also has another claim to Mattala — it lent the government of Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa $190 million to build the $209 million facility.

Harsh Vardhan, chairman of New Delhi-based Starair Consulting, which focuses on aviation issues, said China’s expanding footprint in South Asia has raised hackles in Delhi. “Recent moves by China in creating strategic infrastructure on [an] ownership basis in various countries that have security ramifications have resulted in India also following similar footprints,” he said.

The hub at Hambantota, Rajapaksa’s home town, was widely seen as a vanity project. Intended to spark further development, it has failed to take off because of a lack of investment and the area’s remote location, far away from business hubs and established cities. Its only customer is a Dubai-based budget airline, which uses the airport occasionally.

With no bags to screen, an idle security guard chats on his mobile phone. (Photo by Chathuri Dissanayake)

India has said it will establish a flying school and an aircraft maintenance hub at the airport, with the appointment of a state or private aviation company once a lease is signed. Sri Lanka is also seeking investment from India to develop Trincomalee harbor, which lies about 265km from Colombo on the island’s northeastern coast. Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has said that India is a top contender to develop the harbor, in competition with Singapore.

However, the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is facing stiff domestic resistance to the airport deal, especially from the opposition, led by Rajapaksa and his son, Namal Rajapaksa, who is a member of parliament. The younger Rajapaksa led a demonstration against the deal at the Indian consulate in Hambantota in early October, calling the airport a “vital national asset.”

India’s symbolic gesture

Analysts believe that New Delhi’s interest in Mattala is based on worries about Beijing’s expanding power in the region, and especially in Sri Lanka, India’s near neighbor. Hambantota is expected to play an important role in China’s Belt and Road¬†Initiative to expand infrastructure links between Europe¬†and Asia.

Protesters, with a banner saying “Save Mattala International Airport,” march towards the Indian consulate in Hambantota in early October. (Photo by Jeewan Chandimal)

Harinda Vidanage, director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, a think tank, said that India is making a symbolic gesture. “For all these countries, ports and airports are vital modes of connectivity. So, while China has acquired one mode of connectivity, India is now trying to acquire the other mode of connectivity,” he said.

MUNZA MUSHTAQ, Contributing writer

Courtesy- Nikkei Asian Review

 

 

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