Beijing bites

The Hambantota port project, whose first phase Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa unveiled to the world on Sunday, has the potential to propel the island into a global transshipment hub. Situated on the islands southern tip, Hambantota is just a few nautical miles north of the east-west shipping lane used annually by around 70,000 cargo ships. The port will initially handle 2,500 ships. This capacity will grow manifold with completion of the entire project. Besides a port, a liquefied natural gas refinery, aviation fuel storage facilities, facilities for ship repair and construction, as well as for bunkering and refuelling will come up by 2023. Sri Lanka has moved a step closer towards achieving its long-standing dream of becoming South Asia’s Singapore.

Much of the funding for the $1.5 billion Hambantota project is coming from China. Around 85 per cent of the funding for the first phase has come through a soft loan from Beijing, which has already pledged more money towards the second phase. Hambantota project is now being held up as a symbol of Sino-Sri Lankan relations. Indian security analysts are drawing attention to the implications that the project has for India. Some have pointed that a Chinese naval presence in Hambantota will provide Beijing with one more pearl in its string of pearls strategy. As part of this strategy, China is reportedly building strategic relationships with countries along sea lanes from West Asia to the South China Sea. Its funding of Gwadar port in Pakistan, its robust role in reconstruction of ports in Myanmar and now the Hambantota project must be seen in this context. Colombo has sought to assuage Indian fears by clarifying that China will not be allowed a naval presence. Still Chinese presence so close to India’s southern coast is reason for concern. Hambantota port is among the dozens of high-profile projects in the island that Beijing is involved in.

If China’s presence in the island today is as big as that of India, Delhi has only itself to blame. India could have been the one executing the Hambantota project. After all it was to India that Sri Lanka turned first with the plan. Lethargy and shortsightedness contributed to Delhi turning it down and China snapped up the opportunity. In the process, China has bitten into India’s sphere of influence yet again.

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