China’s project in Sri Lanka in new row of airspace control

PTI Colombo | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on March 18, 2015

A notice sign is seen in front of the construction site of Chinese investment "Colombo Port City" in Colombo   -  Reuters

China’s controversial $1.5 billion Colombo Port City project, which was suspended by the new Sri Lankan government, has run into fresh trouble after the country’s civil aviation authority raised questions on the airspace over the Chinese-held area.

“Given the media rumours of land ownership in the project, we felt it necessary to alert the government to the legal status of the airspace,” Director-General of Sri Lanka Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA) H.M.C. Nimalsiri told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

The SLCCA’s internal memo to the government on airspace was published by Sri Lanka’s state-run Daily News yesterday in a report headlined “Flying over Port City a Taboo!”

It has pointed out that the airspace over the Chinese held area will exclusively be held by China.

“China will have exclusive rights over the airspace above the plot of land of the Colombo Port City, which was given to China on an outright basis” under the 1944 convention on civil aviation for which Sri Lanka as a signatory, the Daily News report said.

“The Civil Aviation Authority’s argument has sent shock waves through the new government as to how the previous government had entered into an agreement with China without scrutinising the convention and the Civil Aviation Act,” it said.

“Sri Lanka’s neighbour India earlier had raised security concerns over the project as a large portion of cargoes bound for India are trans-shipped through the Colombo Port,” the report said.

However, diplomatic sources here told the daily that this airspace issue could also be a major concern for India.

The project, inaugurated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September last year, is financed by China’s state-controlled China Communications Construction Co (CCCC).

It was expected to play a key role for China’s Maritime Silk Road project’s implementation in the Indian Ocean.

Security threats

The SLCAA’s “stance is likely to provide grist for the opponents of the stalled project who have alleged that granting a Chinese state-owned company land would pose security threats. That argument has gained traction since two Chinese submarines docked in Colombo last year,” the Post report said.

The Chinese embassy in Colombo lashed out at the report, saying it was devoid of “basic common sense” and pointed out a Chinese company would hold the land, not the Chinese government, the Post report said.

Nimalsiri said the embassy had clarified the matter with the aviation authorities.

“But since the Chinese company is state-owned, it is up to the legal department of the government to evaluate the status of the airspace”.

Asked if China would control the airspace, Sri Lanka Ports Authority vice-chairman Captain Asitha Wijesekera told the Post that he had not seen any such agreement.

“This is the first time I am hearing about it.”

Colombo Port City is among the several Chinese-funded projects that have come under the scrutiny of the new government, which alleges large-scale corruption by the previous government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was ousted in the presidential elections in January.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s government also said the $5 billion loans secured by Rajapaksa from China carried exorbitant interest rates and the new government wants to renegotiate them with the Chinese government.

Sirisena is due to arrive in China on a state visit on March 26 during which the issue is expected to come for discussion.

The Sri Lankan government has temporarily suspended the project, asking the Chinese company to show the documents on the basis of which it started work.

Yesterday the Chinese Commerce Ministry said it was “deeply concerned” about the halted Port City project.

“We hope Sri Lanka can properly handle the issue and protect the legal interests of Chinese investors,” Ministry of Commerce spokesman Shen Danyang said.

Published on March 18, 2015
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