Ranil Wickremesinghe in New Delhi on Wednesday. (AP)
With an eye on China, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday, days ahead of the joint venture between China Merchants Port Holding Company and Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) starts operations of Hambantota Harbour on December 8.
Wickremesinghe, who arrived in Delhi on Wednesday, was received by Indian envoy to Sri Lanka Taranjit Sandhu. He will also meet President Ram Nath Kovind, besides attending a conference on cyber-security. He leaves on Friday. The meeting assumes significance since India has expressed interest in investing in Mattala airport in Hambantota district. Once finalised, it will be a strategic investment for New Delhi to enter a project which has been Chinese turf on Lankan soil.
Described as the “world’s emptiest airport” by Forbes, the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport in Mattala was built by the Chinese during the previous President’s regime. The present government, led by Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe, has found it difficult to run the airport. In August this year, India had proposed to “operate, manage, maintain and develop” the airport through a joint venture, with India holding 70 per cent of the equity for 40 years. India is supposed to invest $205 million, with Sri Lanka contributing $88 million.
The Indian offer had come within weeks of a Sri Lanka-China agreement on development of Hambantota port, in which the state-run China Merchants Port Holdings will have a 70-per cent stake in a joint venture for a period of 99 years. The Hambantota port and airport projects are part of China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, and Delhi has been worried about Beijing’s rising influence in Sri Lanka.
It is learnt that the joint venture between the Sri Lankan Airport and Aviation Authority and an Indian firm to run the Mattala airport would come into operation by March next year. Sources said this issue and other bilateral projects will be discussed in the meeting between Modi and Wickremesinghe.
During the meeting, the two Prime Ministers are also expected to discuss development of the Trincomalee port, a petroleum refinery and other industries in the vicinity of the port. India will set up a 50 MW (extendable to 100 MW) solar power plant in Sampur, near Trincomalee.
Political relations between the two countries have been marked by high-level exchanges of visits at regular intervals. Wickremesinghe visited India in September 2015, his first overseas visit after being appointed PM. He travelled to India a second time in October 2016 for the India Economic Summit, followed by a working visit in April 2017.
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