Sri Lanka port deals may stoke security fears

portChina is expected to shore up its maritime strength by securing port development deals in Sri Lanka when President Xi Jinping tours South Asia.

While Beijing is keen to make goodwill gestures to countries in the region, the port deals could stoke fears China will use the facilities for strategic purposes, such as encircling India.

Xi is due to stop in the Maldives tomorrow before heading to Sri Lanka and wrapping up his tour in India on September 19.

Port development will be a major topic of discussion with Colombo. The two sides hope to sign a memorandum of understanding on cooperation over the Hambantota port, according to Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao .

The Hambantota port, on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, is already heavily financed by Chinese loans, and is in the second phase of development.

China has also pumped US$500 million into a container terminal at Colombo Port, on Sri Lanka’s west coast.

The push is part of Beijing’s efforts to create a “Maritime Silk Road”, an initiative to expand sea trade routes but which could also serve strategic purposes.

“Sri Lanka supports the initiative,” said Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, executive director of Sri Lanka government think tank Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies. “It is one of the drivers for growth.”

Sri Lanka is also looking to China to counterbalance Western criticisms over human rights abuses during the final stages of its civil war. Sri Lanka was dismayed at a United Nations panel that said nearly 40,000 minority Tamils were killed in the last years of the conflict, which ended in 2009.

In March, the UN Human Rights Council approved an inquiry into the violence, with 23 votes in support and 12 against. China was among the members opposing the investigation.

“I think the government will be expecting the same sort of support from China,” Abeyagoonasekera said.

Wang Dehua , a professor at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said the port facilities would be mainly for economic purposes. But they could be used to supply Chinese vessels taking part in UN missions, such as anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden.

Professor Srikanth Kondapalli, a regional affairs expert at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said security concerns over a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean were not significant as Beijing was not stationing troops overseas.

But China could become a factor influencing ties between New Delhi and Colombo, Kondapalli said. In addition to ports, Beijing has supported power generation and highway projects in Sri Lanka.

China and India have close economic and historical ties, but the relationship has been strained since they fought a border war in 1962.

“As of now, the impact [of Chinese involvement in ports in South Asia] on India is marginal, but it cannot be said 10 years down the line,” Kondapalli said. “There is a concern in India that Sri Lanka may lose its autonomy if it cannot repay loans to China.”

Xi’s trip to India comes after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan, where he criticised countries with an “expansionist mindset”, seen as a veiled attack against Beijing.

But Beijing and New Delhi are expected to portray ties as having positive momentum. India National Security Adviser Ajit Doval told Indian media on Tuesday as he wrapped up his Beijing tour the “decisive leadership” of Xi and Modi would allow for a solution to the border disputes.

Observers, however, said a solution was highly unlikely because nationalism was on the rise. (South China Morning Post)

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