Best if an Indian company builds Colombo port’s east terminal: Admiral Jayanath Colombage

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Sri Lanka to celebrate the Buddhist Vesak Day celebrations underscored how Sri Lanka is a crucial test case for India’s neighbourhood first policy. Admiral Jayanath Colombage, former Sri Lanka navy chief and director of Colombo’s Centre for Indo-Lanka Initiatives, spoke to Nalin Mehta on how the Delhi-Colombo equation is changing and the China factor.

PM Modi has been to Sri Lanka twice now. After a China tilt under the previous Sri Lankan government, do you think the Delhi-Colombo relationship has turned a page?

At the leadership level, the India-Sri Lanka relationship hasn’t been better ever. PM Modi’s neighbourhood first policy is working in favour of Sri Lanka and he can be a driver of economic development in the region. We have not had this kind of a good equation with India since the 1970s between Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The challenge is to translate this from the leadership level to action.

What do you make of the recent protests by union workers in Sri Lanka against the proposed strategic tieup with India for Trincomalee port?

The spirit of what the leaders have spoken on this issue has not been understood by people. Protesters thought that somehow we were talking of giving Trincomalee to India. It was seen by a section of the polity as a betrayal. The fact is that there are 98 oil tanks in Trincomalee since the 1940s. They were used as a strategic reserve by the British between 1940-1945 when the British East Indies shipping headquarters was shifted to Sri Lanka. In 1987, Indian Oil came in and they are using some 15 of these oil tanks. We have not been using the remaining tanks so far and what is wrong with using them in a tie-up with India? It makes economic sense. Trincomalee is an unexploited gold mine and can be an energy hub.

What is your response to Indian concerns about China’s growing imprint in Sri Lanka?

Colombo is fully aware of India’s strategic sensitivities. Sri Lanka is pretty much part of overall Indian security umbrella, especially in the maritime domain because you can cross over in half an hour by sea and by air in seconds. We won’t do anything detrimental to the interest of India but is that enough for us to develop? China has been a friend, supporting our military by providing equipment when we had an official arms embargo. China came to Sri Lanka in 2009 in a big way for infrastructure. We understand the concern that geo-economic ventures can also have geo-strategic intentions so we have to be very careful in how we look after the security aspects. We must be careful not to allow any Chinese military interest as a forward staging point aimed at India.

Colombo recently refused permission to a Chinese submarine to dock in its harbour but it raised Indian concerns in 2014 when such permission was given in 2014. Your comments?

Between 2009 to 2017, 355 warships came to Sri Lanka. Of these, the highest number was of Indian warships (71), then Japan (64) and 26 were Chinese vessels, including two submarines. We are not a military base for anyone. We are basically a service provider.

What about the proposal for Indian companies to build the eastern terminal of Colombo harbour after China built your international container terminal?

The Colombo international container terminal was built by China Harbour Corporation. Seventy percent of its shipping traffic comes from India. We have a Chinese-built facility, operated by a Chinese company, handling 70% of Indian cargo. As part of the Colombo South expansion project, two container terminals – east and west – are to be built. It would be best if an Indian conglomerate or company builds the east terminal. Sri Lanka would be very happy if India develops it so there is no single monopoly of that port.

Why is India, despite a development portfolio of over $2.5 billion, seen with suspicion by many in Sri Lanka?

After the conflict, India helped us a lot. It built 50,000 houses and railway tracks. Some people felt that India was focusing only on the northern part of the country because it is Tamil. On the contrary, it was the worst-affected area, where most help was needed. For some reason, India also did not want to give enough publicity to these efforts maybe because of sensitivities in Tamil Nadu. People have only seen the Chinese contribution to post-conflict reconstruction and not India’s though it had a direct impact on people. People love Indian saris, Indian food and soap operas but still don’t trust India. When we have more connectivity -through religious trails like a Buddhist or a Ramayana trail – it will also build more trust


By Nalin Mehta in Times of India - May 19, 2017

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