Aug 20 (ET) DELHI/COLOMBO- As India looks at China's growing involvement in Sri Lanka with unease, a Rs 100 crore plot in the heart of Colombo has turned into the latest bone of contention between the two Asian giants in the island nation.
While the plot on the prestigious Galle Road, owned by a private agency, was said to have been promised to the Indian high commission, it turns out that the same plot has been allotted to a Chinese state-owned aviation company which also maintains close links with Pakistan, leading India to strongly take up the matter with the Sri Lankan foreign ministry.
The Indian high commission had completed all formalities and was in touch with the Sri Lankan foreign ministry, which has to clear such purchases by any foreign mission, for the sale of the plot as it wanted to build a cultural centre there. It came as an absolute surprise to Indian authorities when they learnt that the plot was being sold to China National Aero Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC), China's aircraft manufacturer.
In fact, Colombo has been set abuzz by reports in the local media about how angry India was and how it had even summoned Sri Lankan high commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam to make its displeasure known. Without confirming or denying it, Indian officials said they will soon come up with a response. They also said that they were still waiting to hear officially from Sri Lanka about the sale to China.
While CATIC is essentially a defence contractor with aviation being its core interest, it has also made forays into the hospitality industry and is likely to build a 5-star hotel on the plot. It is also responsible for the China-Pakistan joint venture to manufacture JF-17 fighter aircraft which is seen as Pakistan's answer to India's Tejas.
While the sale of a plot to the Chinese may seem innocuous, the fact that it may come at the expense of India is likely to further exacerbate India's growing concerns over Beijing successfully expanding its base in Sri Lanka. India is worried that the Chinese may acquire operational control of projects in the strategic sector like the Hambantota port and airport.
In an interview to TOI earlier this month, President Mahinda Rajapaksa made his displeasure over India's vote at the UN Human Rights Commission against Sri Lanka known by calling upon New Delhi to have a relook at its dealings with its neighbours. The president, in fact, didn't answer the question about China getting operational control of projects saying it was a hypothetical query.
While he insisted that there was no strategic drift in Sri Lanka's position and that it will continue to remain a non-aligned country, he acknowledged increasing investments from China and also help from the Chinese in ending the conflict three years ago.