The clearing of the Hambantota Port is not a good sign for how much power New Delhi is able to exert in the region
Nearly six-months after the first agreement which sparked protests in southern Sri Lanka, the country’s Cabinet cleared a revised agreement for the Chinese built Hambantota port on July 25.
The initial understanding between Sri Lanka and China gave too large a stake of the port to the state-run China Merchants Port Holding, which with an investment for $1.5 billion takes an 80 percent stake.
The port, which is close to the world’s busiest shipping lanes, has been mired in controversy. India too has wanted to curb Chinese influence in Sri Lanka and this new deal, according to media reports, has come after India’s efforts to flag the project.
The Chinese control of Hambantota, which is part of Beijing’s modern-day “Silk Route” across Asia and beyond, as well as a plan to acquire 15,000 acres (23 sq miles) to develop an industrial zone next to it, raised fears that it could also be used for Chinese naval vessels. These are legitimate concerns about China’s growing military interests in the Indian Ocean. The regional superpower’s recent deployment of armed naval ships to Djibouti is part of its long term plan to fulfil the “string of pearls” theory and exert absolute dominance over the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lankans demonstrated in the streets, fearing loss of their land, while politicians said such large scale transfer of land to the Chinese impinged on the country’s sovereignty.
Under the revised pact, two companies are being set up to split the operations of the port and allay concerns, in India mainly but also in Japan and the United States, that it won’t be used for military purposes.
“The Cabinet approved the deal and now it needs Parliament approval. We will send it for approval this week,” Cabinet spokesman Dayasiri Jayasekera said.
According to Reuters, a source close to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo told them that both sides had reached a compromise and that Sri Lanka’s concerns had been addressed. However, what must not be overlooked is how Sri Lanka’s fragile coalition government had also paved the way for the passing of this agreement. Two months ago, in a much-awaited Cabinet reshuffle, the then Port Minister Arjuna Ranatunge who had earlier blocked the port deal was removed. The sacking of Ranatunge happened immediately after Prime Minister Wickramasinghe’s return after attending China’s One Belt One Road conference.
With inputs from UNI