Sri Lanka's foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena has said that ties between his country and India will not be impacted despite its decision to pull out of the trilateral East Container Terminal Port project on the Colombo port with India and Japan.
In an exclusive interview with CNN-News 18, Gunawardena said, “The India-Sri Lanka relation is vast. It is not only one project, it is many projects - trade, investment, commerce, understanding on international affairs, historical bonds, long-standing cultural relations and sharing of the Indian Ocean.”
He also denied allegations that China tried to scuttle the deal by orchestrating the trade union protests that forced Sri Lanka to pull out. When questioned about why Chinese projects are conducted smoothly in the country but others face hurdles, he said, “Our port authorities for such projects have been giving joint cooperation to the Chinese. Even in the Colombo port so many projects have been developed with the Chinese. There has always been criticism by trade unions...When port by port was being given to various private sectors or foreign partnerships, the same issues came up. So, this is not the first time. China has also seen tremendous protest when it engaged in the Hambantota project.”
The minister also confirmed that he had a long meeting on Friday evening with Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay in which he communicated the Indian government’s message on all the recent issues that have cropped up. The minister called it a “friendly and fruitful discussion", adding that Sri Lanka will continue the dialogue regarding the issues involved.
Meanwhile, he also revealed that there is an offer of a western terminal -- one of the largest terminals on Colombo port -- for development with India. He added, however, that that a discussion on the same has not begun yet.
Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, while reacting to the ECT project development, had said, “We sincerely believe that the development of infrastructure in Sri Lanka, in areas such as ports and energy, with foreign investment from India and Japan, will be a mutually beneficial proposition. Our High Commissioner in Colombo is in discussion with the Government of Sri Lanka, including on the importance of adhering to international commitments.”
Meanwhile, experts like Sathiya Moorthy, head of ORF’s Chennai Initiative told News18.com that more than the ECT project, India should be concerned about the three energy projects awarded by Colombo to China. These projects are strategically located in Jaffna, barely 50 kms from the Tamil Nadu coast. China’s Sinosoar company will install hybrid renewable energy systems in Nainativu, Delft or Neduntheevu, and Analaitivu, all located in the Palk Bay.
When asked whether India had raised concerns over the project and Sri Lanka’s response, Gunawardena said that alternative energy projects have been in the pipeline. He said that while “security of our two countries will always be considered in any project,” and added that it is not the only aspect under consideration when projects are awarded. Interestingly, he cited the example of the Sethusamudaram project, which he said has been abandoned by India. He added that maritime lanes "will not be obstructed" and be open for all maritime traffic.
The minister refused to comment on the issue of media reports that Colombo is blaming India for the April 2019 terror attack. Dinesh Gunawardena said, “The Presidential commission of inquiry report is not finalized. It is to be released. I can’t comment till the report comes out.” He labelled reports blaming India as “general comments” being made.
He also reiterated that both the government at that time and opposition appreciated that India had provided intelligence inputs in advance suggesting that “the situation is becoming bad.”