Pakistan PM Imran Khan has invited Sri Lanka to use the Gwadar Port and become part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a development that raised concerns among Indian experts. Khan made the proposal during his two-day visit to the island nation last week.
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The matter is a cause of concern for New Delhi because about 70 percent of the goods that Sri Lanka’s ports now handle are transhipped to and from India. Another concern that is bothering the Indian experts is that of security.
Pakistan’s multibillion-dollar trade and infrastructure scheme with China under Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) comprises railways, power plants, and the deepwater Indian Ocean port of Gwadar in Balochistan province.
While the CPEC is aimed at providing China a major overland route from its western frontiers to the world via Pakistan, the two countries have been looking at having more countries use the Gwadar Port.
In Colombo, Imran Khan had said his “visit is aimed at strengthening the bilateral relationship [with Sri Lanka], especially trade and economic ties through enhanced connectivity” and the CPEC could offer Sri Lanka better connectivity with the rest of Central Asia, through the Gwadar port.
Experts have raised concerns while pointing out that this is an attempt by Islamabad to increase its influence in the region, which has been dominated by India. Former Indian diplomat Rajiv Bhatia told South China Morning Post: “The facet to explore is whether Pakistan and Sri Lanka are planning to enhance maritime or naval connectivity under Chinese inspiration. If so, this should worry New Delhi.”
Pointing out what makes Gwadar an appealing proposal, Sri Lankan experts have pointed out that the island nation would benefit by offering special packages to international shipping lines for the use of facilities in both Colombo and Gwadar ports, especially to vessels coming from East Asia.
Pakistan is Sri Lanka’s second-largest trading partner after India but the volume of trade between both countries had remained static at around US$400 million for many years. Hence, for the CPEC to be considered, there needs to be scope for raising the volume of trade and investment between the two sides.
Notably, there is a free trade agreement between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Pakistan’s top exports to Sri Lanka include textiles and cement with and the latter’s top exports to Pakistan being tea, rubber, and readymade garments.
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Khan’s visit was marked by controversies as there were concerns that he would raise the matters like Kashmir and the burial of Muslims in Sri Lanka, but at the last minute, Colombo canceled Khan’s parliament address. Sri Lanka has always made an effort to balance ties between India and Pakistan.
But a bigger concern for India has been the Chinese influence in the island nation. China currently runs Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port to cover Colombo’s debts to Beijing under an agreement made in 2017. Colombo chose to co-develop and operate the Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT) with China at Colombo port.
Last month, Colombo had withdrawn from a tripartite agreement with New Delhi and Tokyo for the development of the East Container Terminal at Colombo port citing unrest among the people. The government had said it had decided to proceed with the east terminal on its own and would be 100 percent owned and operated by the state-owned Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA).
It was speculated that China may have influenced the decision. However, in a positive development on Tuesday, Sri Lankan Cabinet approved the West Container Terminal project under the India-Japan-SL public-private partnership.
Sri Lankan Cabinet approves West Container Terminal project under India-Japan-SL public-private partnership pic.twitter.com/O6aOScHorh
— Nitin A. Gokhale (@nitingokhale) March 2, 2021