China launches Sri Lanka's first satellite as India watches ties grow

COLOMBO Tue Nov 27, 2012 6:25am EST

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COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka launched its first communications satellite on Tuesday in partnership with a Chinese state-owned space technology firm, the Sri Lanka partner said, adding to unease in neighboring India about Beijing's growing ties with the island nation.

The Sri Lankan government has emphasized 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, chief executive of SupremeSAT, told Reuters 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 New Delhi.

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

Economic and strategic rivals China and India fought a brief, high-altitude border war in 1962 and still have contested regions, though the defense relationship has improved.

Rhetoric flared anew recently after China issued a new passport with a map that shows two disputed border areas as Chinese territory. India responded by stamping its own map on visas it issues to holders of the Chinese passports.

China has been the largest lender to Sri Lanka, a $59 billion economy, since the end of 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 defense ties with China, a fact that has irked India and the United States.

"NOT A CONCERN"

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie visited Sri Lanka in September, offering grants to modernize 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, Sri Lanka Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of the president, met Liang and agreed to consolidate bilateral cooperation.

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.

China, like other nations with the technical capability, has launched numerous satellites on a commercial basis for other countries.

(Reporting by Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO, Arup Roychoudhury in NEW DELHI, and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Ken Wills)

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