China will not be allowed to use the southern port of Hambantota for military purposes, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said, apparently attempting to allay fears in India and the US about China’s increasing maritime presence in the strategic Indo-Pacific region.
Wickremesinghe said this ahead of the arrival of a high-tech Chinese research ship, which on Tuesday docked at the Hambantota Port, which Beijing took over on a 99-year-lease as a debt swap in 2017. “We do not want Hambantota to be used for military purposes,” Wickremesinghe said on Sunday in an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper at the President’s House in Colombo.
His statement to the Japanese newspaper was apparently aimed at allaying fears in India and the United States about China’s increasing maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific. The port was developed as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but Colombo leased the port to Beijing in 2017 because it became unable to pay back the loan.
Wickremesinghe emphasised that there was no problem with loaning the port to China, saying, “this is nothing new.” He pointed out that countries such as Australia and South Africa have also leased ports. The Hambantota Port was funded largely by Chinese interest loans. According to official data from the Sri Lankan government, China is Sri Lanka’s largest provider of foreign debt. Struggling to repay what it owes, Colombo has leased the southern port to Chinese state-owned enterprises for 99 years.
Sri Lanka can be said to have fallen into a debt trap, sinking deeply into debt before effectively handing over the port’s control to China. India, the United States and other countries are concerned that Hambantota Port, which is a key traffic hub in the Indo-Pacific, could become a military foothold for China.
“The present ship did not come under the category of military. [It] came under the category of a research ship. That is how [we] permitted the ship to come to Hambantota,” Wickremesinghe said, indicating his stance to maintain certain ties with China. Sri Lanka is in a serious economic crisis due to a shortage of foreign currency. The president said he intended to finalise talks with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout by the end of August.
“We will also start the discussions with our creditors … China, India and Japan are the largest creditors,” he said. Wickremesinghe, 73, was elected president on July 20, following the resignation of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who fled the country amid the turmoil caused by the economic crisis.