Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has ruled out the possibility of the strategic Hambantota port being used as a “military base” by any foreign country, allaying India’s concerns over the Chinese Navy’s growing presence in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan government on July 29 signed a $1.1 billion deal to sell a 70-per cent stake in the Hambantota port to China, amid concerns over the massive debt the island nation incurred in building the port.
Under the 99-year lease agreement, China’s state-run conglomerate China Merchant Port Holdings (CMPort) is to invest up to $1.1 billion in the port.
The deal had been delayed by several months over concerns that the deep-sea port could be used by the Chinese navy.
Cash-rich China has invested millions of dollars in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure since the end of a brutal civil war in 2009.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe used the presence of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to allay India’s concern over Chinese involvement in developing the Hambantota port.
“Let me refer to Sri Lanka’s decision to develop its major sea ports, especially the Hambantota port which some claim to be a military base. I state clearly that Sri Lanka headed by President Maithripala Sirisena does not enter into military alliances with any country or make our bases available to foreign countries,” Wickremesinghe said while addressing the Indian Ocean Conference held here last night.
“Only the Sri Lanka Armed Forces have the responsibility for military activities in our ports and airports. We are also working with foreign private investors on the commercial development of our ports,” he said.
Swaraj, in her speech at the conference on Thursday, said India was ready to face security challenges in the Indian Ocean.
She said it was imperative that those living in the region bear the primary responsibility for peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region.
Swaraj said that if the revitalised maritime economy of the Indian Ocean region is to be a force for global economic growth, it is essential that the waters remain peaceful, stable and secure.
The Sri Lankan premier said that in the absence of effective multilateral trade agreements for the Indian Ocean region, Sri Lanka has decided to enter into bilateral agreements with the neighbouring countries.
“We already have Free Trade Agreements with India and Pakistan. We are in the process of deepening our FTA with India to enable greater economic cooperation. We will finalise an FTA with Singapore and then conclude similar trade agreements with other countries in the Bay of Bengal region. We are also negotiating an FTA with China,” he said.