Sri Lanka has “assured” India that the high-profile Colombo Port project will remain with New Delhi despite opposition pressure to review the $500-million deal, ThePrint has learnt.
An MoU for the project was signed between Sri Lanka and India and Japan, which is collaborating to build a container terminal in the port, in May 2019.
According to sources, some of the opposition parties, especially the Leftist parties, want to take the project away from India because of concerns that New Delhi will drag its feet.
This has now become an election issue as Sri Lanka votes in parliamentary polls next month. Under opposition pressure, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa set up a review committee in late June to look into the deal. But diplomatic sources said Rajapaksa did so because he wanted to “silence” them ahead of elections.
“There is a general feeling with the opposition parties in Sri Lanka that after the Chinese, India and Japan are trying to spread their tentacles in Colombo’s strategic assets,” a source told ThePrint.
The diplomatic sources added Sri Lanka has assured India that after the elections are over, India and Japan will get the go-ahead to develop the project, but it has to be “expedited” as it is crucial for all stakeholders.
Development of projects has been a long-standing concern between India and Sri Lanka. Some of the key projects pending for years are the Trinco Oil Farm projects, modernisation of an airport in Sri Lanka and development of an LNG terminal in Colombo, among others.
The Colombo Port project is seen as a counter to China’s growing penetration in the island country with its Belt and Road Initiative.
Both India and Sri Lanka had agreed to prioritise it during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s maiden visit to New Delhi last November. The visit was seen as India’s attempt to not let the island nation slip completely into “Chinese hands”.
India’s concern over the Colombo Port project stems from what happened at Hambantota.
Sri Lanka had taken massive loans from China, which it could not repay and, thus, Beijing took control over the port under a 99-year lease for debt relief in 2017.
“The Hambantota example in Sri Lanka remains one of New Delhi’s biggest concerns. It was through this port that Beijing actually started to yield influence in Sri Lanka,” said a second source.