Lankan PM to visit as India eyes leasing airport near Hambantota

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NEW DELHI: In the backdrop of India’s interest in leasing out an airport in China-dominated Hambantota, Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremasinghe will be in New Delhi this week for talks with PM Narendra Modi. Wickremasinghe arrives on Tuesday and will speak at a key cyber security conference before meeting the Indian leadership.

 

Sri Lanka has become an important partner for India both in the neighbourhood and in the Indian Ocean region. In addition, India is reportedly using Colombo’s influence over Myanmar’s Buddhist leadership to help defuse the Rohingya crisis.

 

India has expressed interest in operating the Mattala international airport near the Hambantota port. China recently announced it would pay Sri Lanka $1.1 billion for Hambantota port’s terminals, which may ease some of the debt Colombo has taken but will mean a virtually permanent Chinese ownership of their real estate. China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka Yi Xianlang recently said that Chinese firms would invest $5 billion into the SEZ near the port.

 

India wants to lease the Mattala airport for 40 years at something over $200 million – the trouble is, the airport is actually in the middle of nowhere, and is jokingly described as the world’s “emptiest” airport. India wants to operate the airport for its own airlines, which have apparently reported an uptick in tourist travel to southern Sri Lanka. There is also some vague plan of using it as a training space or even as a freight hub. The leasing makes sense from a security/strategic point of view as it will give India eyes on Hambantota.