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Lanka satellite jitters

Colombo, Nov. 27 (Reuters): Sri Lanka launched its first communications satellite today in partnership with a Chinese state-owned space technology firm, the Sri Lanka partner said, adding to unease in India about Beijing’s growing ties with the island nation.

The Sri Lankan government has emphasised the launch was a private effort, carried out by SupremeSAT (Pvt) Ltd and the China Great Wall Industry Corp. But Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s youngest son, Rohitha, has been credited in domestic media as the creator of the satellite.

Vijith Peiris, the chief executive of SupremeSAT, said in Colombo that the launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in western China was successful.

The joint launch marked the latest in a series of economic and military ties between the two countries, a relationship that is being closely watched by India. “It reinforces the impression that Sri Lanka is getting slowly but surely closer to China,” said Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.

“From a larger geopolitical perspective, it sends a message to India that a country in its own backyard is cosying up with China.”

China has been the largest lender to Sri Lanka, a $59-billion economy, since a three-decade civil war ended in May 2009. China had provided military equipment to the Sri Lankan government to defeat ethnic Tamil rebels. Since then, Sri Lanka has sought stronger defence ties with China, a fact that has irked India and the US.

Chinese defence minister Liang Guanglie visited Sri Lanka in September, offering grants to modernise Sri Lanka’s military training. Liang said the ties were aimed at maintaining regional stability and were not targeted at any third party.

During a visit to China early this month, Lanka defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of the President, met Liang and agreed to consolidate bilateral co-operation.

China has also become involved in construction of a strategic sea and air port in Sri Lanka’s southern district of Hambantota, also Rajapaksa’s constituency. It is also involved in a coal-fired power plant, expressways, railways and irrigation works.

India has not officially protested the increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka and has even said the latest corporation on space technology was not a concern.

“It’s a commercial communication satellite. It’s going to be in a Chinese (orbit) slot and not in a Sri Lankan slot. At that far, you can’t do anything and it’s not a concern for us,” said an Indian diplomat based in Sri Lanka, speaking on condition of anonymity.