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Port City bill arouses Indian row over airspace and territorial sea control

The government is compelled to dispel the Sri Lankan public's and neighboring India’s concerns over Chinese dominance mainly in administration, military maritime and aviation issues which will crop during the implementation of the legally challenged Port City Economic Commission Bill, foreign affairs analysts said.

The Sri Lankan public is really worried about the powers vested in the commission over the Western Provincial Council and the Colombo Municipality in the governance of the newly added area spanning 269 hectares of reclaimed land from the sea.

The major issue in foreign affairs of Sri Lanka is the Indian authority's concern on China’s increasing presence in the Indian ocean and aviation advantages along with military matters, several experts and analysts of foreign and current affairs said.

The New Port City Commission Bill has renewed concern in India that the project will give China a naval base just 150 miles off India’s southeast coast.

Sri Lanka’s strategic positioning between the Strait of Malacca and China’s new base at Djibouti make Port City more than a construction project and it has become a barometer of Chinese influence in South Asia.

Conversely, the tangled history of this project shows the limits of India’s ability to project power in its immediate region, foreign affairs analysts said.

One of the serious issues which will arise in the implementation of the bill is the air space over the Chinese-held area which would be controlled exclusively by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), a Chinese government-owned construction company.

According to Article 01 and 02 of the Chicago Convention on Civil Aviation, 1944 – to which Sri Lanka is a signatory – China would have exclusive rights over the air space above the reclaimed land that would constitute Colombo Port City, aviation experts pointed out.  

The land had been given to China on a 99-year lease basis, they said, adding that Sri Lanka’s Civil Aviation Act No. 14 of 2010 and Air Navigation Act No. 15 of 1950 were enacted in line with the Chicago Convention of Civil Aviation, making Sri Lanka bound to the terms of the international convention, to which 191 countries are signatories.

Meanwhile, Chinese diplomatic sources noted that the reclaimed land of Port City is part of Sri Lanka's territory and therefore, Sri Lanka has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the reclaimed land and the air space above it.

Any individual or company's ownership right or right of use of land does not affect sovereignty, official sources claimed.

State Minister of Finance Ajith Nivard Cabraal on Friday (16) hailed the proposed legislation for the Port City Commission as a “turning point” for the overall economy and insisted sufficient safeguards have been built into the Bill to protect Sri Lankan interests and ensure compliance under local laws.

He pointed out that oversight of any tax concessions, licences, investment approvals or regulatory decisions, which would be done by the commission with the concurrence of regulators, such as the Central Bank or the Auditor General.

He also emphasised that such decisions would be gazetted, with the documents presented to Parliament within a period of three months, or they would become defunct.

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