Sri Lanka, which attended the recently concluded Belt and Road Forum in China, has backed India's concern over the Kashmir issue saying it is difficult for New Delhi to accept the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as it goes through the "heart of Indian interests," the Economic Times reported on Wednesday.
Special Assignment Minister Sarath Amanugama has said India, which skipped the high-profile meeting, would have joined "very happily" in the One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative of China.
"Unfortunately, the issue is going through the heart of Indian interests. If it is some uncontested region, India would have negotiated its way out. Here especially the Kashmir issue getting dragged into it, makes it difficult for India to be flexible," Minister Amanugama, who accompanied Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told PTI.
He said India, China and Sri Lanka were very much part of the ancient Silk Road route as the Chinese Buddhist scholars like Faxian visited both India and Sri Lanka leading to big discoveries of Buddhist relics in Sri Lanka.
"President Xi Jinping has emphasised connectivity. These countries were connected many centuries ago. This will link up these countries on certain rational basis. Once the regional problems are resolved, then India has to play big role in the initiative," he said adding that India anyway has to play big role.
“You cannot think of a belt and road without going over and close to India,” he said.
India skipped the meeting due to its sovereignty concerns over the USD 50 billion CPEC, which goes through Pakistan- occupied Kashmir. The two-day conference in Beijing brought together leaders from 29 countries.
Besides Premier Wickremesinghe, the summit was attended by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several other leaders, heads of UN, World Bank and IMF.
The minister said Sri Lanka would not permit any foreign military operations in its port by any country including China in an effort to reassure India's security concerns over Chinese military activity.
Confirming reports that recent Chinese requests for docking of its submarines was declined, he said, "We denied them permission."
"Lanka's position is that our harbours and ports are for commercial operations. All other countries have no strategic interests. We are equidistant from everyone. China, India, US and all other countries, they cannot come into our territorial waters without the consent of the Sri Lankan government," the minister said.
Even the Hambantota harbour which Sri Lanka plans to hand over to China under debt to equity swap will function under the Sri Lankan Ports Authority (SLPA).
He said in the agreement currently being finalised to give 80 per cent stake for Chinese shipping company, it would be allowed to operate inside the harbour but all the outside operations would be carried out SLPA.
Allaying India's concerns, he said Sri Lanka is taking assistance from the Indian Navy to maintain maritime security including tracking submarines. India is also providing patrol boats, he said.
"But we are caught up in a debt crisis. Sri Lanka is facing a problem with debt repayment," he said, defending Sri Lanka opting for debt to equity swap in the harbour deal.
Sri Lanka has an estimated debt of USD eight billion to China. The loans were taken for different mega projects.
"Last year we raised it with Premier Li Keqiang. At first we asked for a debt relief, either to write it off or to reschedule payment. But he said it is not possible because they have lent money to several other countries. But suggested that we convert it into equity by forming a joint venture company. It will be registered in Sri Lanka and will be a Sri Lankan company. Chinese side will convert that into equity. Sri Lanka doesn't have to repay," the minister said adding that it was a "win-win situation".