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India’s quiet Mattala victory over China

India's 'sleeping with the enemy' strategy? Controlling Mattala airport will enable India to keep a permanent surveillance on the Chinese-built Hambantota seaport and watch how the port is being used. India fears that China is likely to set up a naval base there in the not-too-distant future 

Barun Das Gupta 

Last week, Sri Lanka finally agreed to let India operate Mattala airport, situated about 40 km north-east of the Hambantota seaport that China has built on the southern tip of the island. China has acquired 60% stake in the project as Sri Lanka was unable to repay the debt to the Chinese company that built it.

India has, thus, scored a quiet but important diplomatic victory over China in Sri Lanka. Beijing was dead against India taking over Mattala airport. In the Lankan Parliament, the Opposition led by former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party asked the government if it was handing over Mattala to India “to please the superpowers India and China”.

It may be recalled that Rajapaksa’s reign was marked by a strong pro-China tilt in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. With Chinese aid, he wanted to build a big seaport at Hambantota, an international airport at Mattala and a cricket stadium with all modern facilities. The seaport has taken shape, but the Chinese are the major stakeholders in the project.

Next was Mattala International airport, which came to be known as the “world’s emptiest airport”. Initially, one international flight used to take off from this airport once a week. In May this year, even that stopped. The airport was claimed to have the potential of handling a million passengers a year, rising to five million passengers, 50,000 tons of cargo and 6,250 flights by 2028. But, after incurring a loss of 20 billion rupees, that dream turned out to be a fantasy.

Why, then, was India interested in taking over this white elephant of an airport, which is likely to ever remain a financial liability? The reason is strategic. Just 40 km down south of Mattala is the Chinese-built Hambantota seaport. India fears that, in the not-too-distant future, China is likely to set up a naval base there secretly, if possible, and openly, if necessary, disregarding possible objections from Colombo. India’s fear of China setting up a naval base in future is not totally unfounded. The way Sri Lanka, as many other Asian countries, is coming under an increasing Chinese debt burden, it is quite possible that a situation may arise in future in which Sri Lanka will not be able to say ‘No’ to a Chinese demand that the PLA Navy be allowed to build a naval base at Hambantota.

Controlling Mattala airport will enable India to keep a permanent surveillance on Hambantota and watch how the port is being used. As foreign experts have pointed out, it is difficult to conceive of the Chinese navy developing a strategic facility at Hambantota without controlling Mattala airport, which is why India is willing to spend $300 million to get an airport worth $210 million. Mattala airport will now be developed as a Lanka-India joint venture, with India holding majority stake. However, details of the development of the airport have not been disclosed.

Some strategic thinkers believe the scene of any future confrontation between India and China is more likely to be the Indian Ocean rather than the Himalayas. In early-2016, Bangladesh had politely declined a Chinese offer to build a port at Sonadia, near Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong. A port at Sonadia would have brought Chinese presence uncomfortably close to India’s Eastern Naval Command at Visakhapatnam and the only joint Three Services Command in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

China has undertaken another massive project in Sri Lanka the $1.4-billion Colombo Port City on 269 hectares of land reclaimed from the sea (Bay of Bengal). It will be a big commercial hub. The significance of all these Chinese-assisted projects is that China’s economic grip on the island nation is tightening.

India is fully aware that it faces China’s challenge in the field of financial assistance to the neighbouring countries, as well. It is trying to meet this challenge the best it can. The Ex-Im Bank of India has extended a loan of $45.27 million for rebuilding the Kankesanthurai port in northern Sri Lanka. The port was devastated in the tsunami and cyclone that hit it in 2004 and 2008. In 2016, India advanced a credit of $318 million for railway development. India’s total loan assistance to Lanka is now over 1,200 million.

To forge stronger ties with Sri Lanka, India should offer loans on more attractive terms than the high rate of interest charged by Chinese companies. A solution will also have to be found to the problem of Indian and Lankan fishermen intruding into each other’s territorial waters, resulting in diplomatic bitterness.

Unlike his predecessor, PM Maithripala Sirisena has warm feelings for India. Handing over Mattala airport to India in the face of criticism by the Opposition is symbolic of his strong desire to deepen friendship with India. Delhi has to nurture this relationship assiduously.

(The author is a senior journalist) 


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