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International relations

Sri Lanka plays its India hand with airport upgrade as poll nears

Pro-China opposition decries pork-barrel politics ahead of presidential election

An aircraft from India's Alliance Air touches down at Jaffna International Airport on Oct. 17. The flight was part of a ceremony inaugurating the country's third international airport. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara)

COLOMBO -- Sri Lanka's former war-torn northern province has become entangled in the geopolitical power plays between China and India following the opening of the country's third international airport in Jaffna, 400 km north of Colombo.

Since its inauguration on Oct. 17, Jaffna International Airport has been alleged to be just another pork barrel project to buy votes in the run-up to the presidential election, which will have an impact on relations between Colombo and two of its major benefactors.

Sri Lanka's opposition, led by ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has accused the government of declaring the airport open in a hurriedly devised vote-buying ploy for the Nov. 16. election. However, the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sidestepped the allegations, claiming the airport is being built in three phases, with the first now completed.

Once a domestic airport, Jaffna is being upgraded to handle international flights. This phase was constructed for 2.2 billion Sri Lanka rupees ($12 million), of which 300 million rupees came from the Indian government in the form of a grant.

Apart from the country's main airport outside Colombo, Sri Lanka's second international airport was pushed through by Rajapaksa in his hometown of Hambantota with the help of a loan from China. The airport, which opened in 2013, has been a waste of money and was dubbed the "world's emptiest airport," as it handles no commercial flights.

Jaffna may suffer the same stigma, as it will initially handle only flights from Alliance Air of India, a subsidiary of India's national flag carrier, Air India. No other airlines are scheduled to use the airport.

The airport debacles are part of the ongoing power game between China and India. While India regards Sri Lanka as being in its sphere of influence and has traditionally shared close economic ties with its neighbor, Beijing is tempting the country with massive loans, investment and exports owing to Sri Lanka's strategic importance along the sea-lane linking China with the oil-producing countries of the Middle East.

But China's looming presence is making India edgy. Unlike the previous Rajapaksa-led administration, which was openly pro-Beijing before ceding power in 2015, the current government has been backpedaling.

Noting the change, India has funded several major projects, including a housing project, an emergency ambulance service and partial funding for Jaffna International Airport.

Moreover, to further dampen Beijing's growing influence, the Wickremesinghe government signed an agreement with India and Japan to develop the East Container Terminal at Colombo Port -- the country's main seaport -- for an estimated $700 million. Ironically, the port is located just meters away from the $1.4 billion China-funded Colombo Port City project.

Meanwhile, Namal Rajapaksa, a member of parliament and the former president's eldest son, labeled the hurried opening of Jaffna a "disgrace to the city."

Coastal area of Colombo city, the commercial center of Sri Lanka, was reclaimed for the $1.4 billion China-funded Colombo Port City project. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Rajapaksa said: "The opening of the airport is definitely politically motivated. If anyone visits the airport, they will realize its true state. There is no proper drainage system... and when it rains, it is inundated. The airport is in a bad situation, and it's obvious why this government rushed into opening a half-built airport."

Located at the northernmost tip of the country and fronting India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, the Jaffna region is said to have played a major role in the 2015 presidential election that ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa from the presidency. Most voters in Jaffna threw their support behind Maithripala Sirisena, now the current president.

Tourism Development Minister John Amaratunga denied allegations of an election ploy, claiming the airport opening was planned far in advance.

Jaffna Airport was originally built by the British Royal Air Force during World War II. Later, it served as the country's second international airport before being taken over by the Sri Lanka Air Force during the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist group. After the war ended in 2009, the airport reopened for domestic flights.

Maya Majueran, Director of the Belt and Road Sri Lanka think tank, said that no matter who wins the election, Beijing's interest in Sri Lanka will remain unchanged. "They want Sri Lanka because of its geographical location, and whoever comes to power, China will ensure that they have their influence and they will do whatever they want."

According to Central Bank of Sri Lanka, gross external debt exceeded $55 billion in the quarter ended June. Due to the growing debt, Wickremesinghe's government granted China a 99-year lease on the controversial Hambantota Port in 2017, converting debt to equity. The port was constructed with loans from China under the Belt and Road Initiative. Now, critics are calling it a debt trap.

Sri Lanka owes China about $5 billion, including loans to state-owned enterprises. And from 2005, the Indian government has committed a total of $2.6 billion to Sri Lanka: $436 million in grant assistance and $2.17 billion in credit lines.

Concerns over the situation are mounting. W.A. Wijewardena, a former deputy governor of the central bank, said the country's debt traps -- first with China and now seemingly with India -- are not due to overreliance on the two countries, but because Sri Lanka has failed to put the money into productive investments. "Hence, India's entry to Sri Lanka's debt market doesn't make any change," he told Nikkei.

Vivekananthan Niranjan, coordinator of the Jaffna Managers Forum, defended the government, saying the airport should be viewed from an economic perspective rather than a political one. "Through this project, we can create more market opportunities for the benefit of our people," he told Nikkei. "We have a market of around 70 million people in [the Indian state of] Tamil Nadu, and must exploit it for our benefit in a manner where unemployment and other issues can be addressed."

The presidential election on Nov. 16 will be a decisive day for Sri Lanka, as the outcome will have an important bearing on the country's relations with China and India.

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