COLOMBO: Geo-political and domestic electoral politics will shape the Sri Lankan government’s decision on the question as to whether the “World’s Emptiest Airport” at Mattala in south Sri Lanka, should be leased out to India or China.

The issue of handing over the strategically located but non-functioning airport to a foreign country, be it India or China, has been a ticklish geo-political and domestic electoral issue since 2015.

Despite the statements of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Sripala de Silva, that China’s offer was “unattractive” China is believed to be wanting the airport, or at least not wanting it to be handed over to India.

Mattala is only 39 km from Hambantota port, which China had taken on a 99 year lease in 2016-2017. And Mattala is adjacent to the proposed Chinese-run industrial zone spread over 15,000 acres of land. China’s interest in the airport stems also from the fact it was built by a Chinese company with a Chinese government loan of US$ 252 million, a loan which Sri Lanka is yet to fully repay.

It is no secret that India has an eye on the airport for its value as a “strategic asset” with which it can watch the activities of the Chinese in Hambantota port and the Indian Ocean beyond.

However, India has a historical claim to special consideration which China does not have. New Delhi has always considered Sri Lanka to be within its sphere of influence and has insisted that Sri Lanka should not do anything to jeopardize its strategic interest in this part of South Asia. And, by and large, Sri Lanka has obliged India in this regard.

Therefore, in a way, Sri Lanka feels obliged to take into account India’s strategic concerns and not hand over Mattala to China on a platter.

According to Iqbal Athas, the veteran defense correspondent of Sunday Times, India needs a strategic outpost in south Sri Lanka to keep a watch over what is happening in that part of the Indian Ocean, especially after the Maldives under President Abdulla Yameen slipped out of its hands into the hands of China.

However, the Mattala airport issue has a critical domestic electoral angle, which no government in Colombo, no matter which party is in power, can overlook. There is a general feeling among Sri Lankans that successive governments have yielded to foreign pressure and parceled out national assets to foreign countries and compromised on national sovereignty.

The India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, which had forced the then Sri Lankan government to amend the constitution to devolve some powers to the minority Tamil-dominated provinces, is still seen by Sri Lankan politicos and the public as a “sell out” to India.

The grant of the 99 giant oil tanks in Trincomalee to India in 2003 is still seen as “appeasement of Big Brother India”. The handing over of the Hambantota port to China for 99 years only to repay a debt of US$ 1.12 billion, is considered to be unparalleled in the annals of such “sell outs”.

Opposition parties have agitated against these agreements and deals. And governments, on their part, have tried to stall the implementation of some of these agreements if implementation is felt to be politically untenable.

At election time, opposition parties invariably whip up nationalistic sentiments and rake up the issue of parceling out national assets to foreigners. The popular view is that repaying heavy external debts is no excuse to alienate national assets to foreign governments or foreign corporate entities.

The Joint Opposition (JO) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has already organized demonstrations against the proposal to hand over Mattala airport to India. JO MPs recently went in a group to “inspect” the facilities at the airport and find out why Sri Lanka cannot itself run it.

With the necessity to live down the opposition propaganda that it was wrong to have given the Hambantota port to China to repay a paltry loan of US$ 1.2 billion, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is under a political compulsion not to hand over the Mattala airport to India on a platter. The matter is further complicated by the fact that, in the Sri Lankan mind, India is taking the airport not to earn money, but to keep an eye on China’s activities in Hambantota port. The fear of Sri Lanka’s turning out to be a Sino-Indian battleground is pervasive.

But India is alarmed by China’s continuing inroads into Sri Lanka, even under the current leadership which came to power in 2015 promising to end the Rajapaksa regime’s special relationship with that country.

India kept putting pressure on Colombo to hand over Mattala. Finally, in July 2017, the Sri Lankan Minister of Civil Aviation, Nimal Sripala de Silva, told parliament that government has decided to give a 70% stake in the airport to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) for running the airport on a “commercial basis” and with no right whatsoever to put it to any kind of military use. He also said that that no deal will be finalized until the AAI submits a credible business model to make the airport viable and profitable.

One year down the line, after several rounds of talks, there was a startling statement from New Delhi by the Indian Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Jayant Sinha, in parliament, denying that the AAI had sought to take a stake in the Mattala airport. He also denied that the AAI had given a business model.

In Colombo, there was no clue as to why the Indian minister said that. There was even speculation that India may be wanting to back out of the Mattala project.

The junior Minister of Civil Aviation Ashoka Abeysinghe told Sunday Times that Indian delegations had come and talked about the airport’s lease but the details cannot be revealed because they were with the Ministry’s Secretary who is abroad on a tour.

Adm.Dr.Jayanath Colombage, former Sri Lankan navy chief and an expert on strategic affairs, feels that it will be unrealistic to expect India to back out of the Mattala project because of its strategic value vis-à-vis China.

However, he added that the Sri Lankan government may have reservations about proceeding with the project at this time, given the exigencies of electoral politics. Provincial elections are due either at the end of 2018 or early 2019 . The Presidential election is due in January 2020 and parliamentary elections are to be held in August 2020, Adm.Colombage pointed out.

Some say that too much should not be read into Minister Jayant Sinha’s statement.

“It is only a factual account of what is happening. The AAI has not officially proposed to take a stake in the airport. While talks have been going on, and various ideas have been thrown up in the discussions, there is no official proposal as yet,” a source said.

However, pressure on the Sri Lankan government from China appears to be mounting. China is making determined efforts to influence political leaders in Sri Lanka to swing a multitude of projects.

After getting what it wanted from Prime Minister Wickremesinghe vis-à-vis Hambantota port, China is now cultivating President Sirisena with a “personal gift” of US$ 250 million from President Xi Jinping to do what he likes with it. Sirisena has said that he plans to build houses for villagers in South Sri Lanka with that money. Top aides of President Sirisena have paid visits to China at Beijing’s invitation.

China has been cultivating the putative JO Presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also. He has been invited to give lectures in Chinese think tanks several times. Recently, JO chief Mahinda Rajapaksa was a prominent invitee at a Chinese military function in Colombo, where a Chinese official announced that China will gift a frigate to the Sri Lankan navy.

Another prominent invitee was R.Sampanthan, the Tamil National Alliance leader and Leader of the Opposition in parliament, who, to India’s dismay, almost agreed to support the Chinese project to build 40,000 houses for war-affected Tamils of North Sri Lanka.