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China Won't Get Port for Naval Base, Sri Lanka Assures India

Sputnik News

12:35 27.07.2017

China will not be able to use the Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka as a naval base and limit its presence to commercial activities as part of a revised agreement approved by the Sri Lankan government on Tuesday, allaying strategic concerns raised by India.

New Delhi (Sputnik) – As part of the revised pact, the Sri Lankan government has limited the role of the Chinese to just commercial operations, while retaining oversight of security operations at the port. The earlier terms of the agreement had sparked a controversy and protests in the island nation.

"Some [diplomatic] missions here were worried that the port would be used as a military naval base. As per the revised agreement, Sri Lanka will manage the port security. Our foreign policy today is reaching out to everyone and not giving special treatment to anyone," The Hindu quoted Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lankan Ports Minister, as saying.

The strategically located port was built with Chinese loans in 2010 during President Mahinda Rajapaksa's tenure. In 2016, the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government decided to sell 80% stake in the port to the state-run China Merchants Port Holdings in order to service the massive $8 billion debt the island nation owes to China.

Hambantota port is part of China's maritime silk route across Asia connecting it with Europe at a key junction in the Indian Ocean.

What, however, raised alarm bells in New Delhi as well as the US and Japan was a Chinese submarine docking in Colombo, where another Chinese firm is building a $1.4 billion port city on reclaimed land, according to Reuters.

India has been closely watching the developments in Sri Lanka thereafter, including raising its strategic concerns. In May this year, Sri Lanka refused a Chinese request to allow the docking of a submarine.

But less than a fortnight later, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attended the Belt and Road Initiative in Beijing in May, which India boycotted.

Indian experts say while Sri Lanka has heeded New Delhi's concerns, the Chinese influence in the island is not over. A large section of its political class harbors anti-India sentiments and view China as a balancing factor.

"India enjoys close people-to-people contact and religious and historical connections, but China has expanded its political and commercial influence. New Delhi needs to keep Rajapaksa at bay. He continues to enjoy popularity and that has to be kept in mind," Major General Vinod Saighal (Retd.) told Sputnik.


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