Lanka snubs US claim... ‘no Chi­nese army base at port’

Millennium Post - - Mp World -

COLOMBO: Sri Lankan Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­remesinghe has re­jected US' claim that China might set up a "for­ward mil­i­tary base" at a strate­gic port it has leased to the com­mu­nist na­tion, de­scrib­ing it as "imag­i­nary".

Last year, Colombo had leased the Ham­ban­tota port to Bei­jing for 99 years af­ter it failed to re­pay a Chi­nese loan of USD 1.4 bil­lion for the project.

China gain­ing the con­trol of the port has raised con­cerns that the coun­try could use the har­bour for mil­i­tary pur­poses.

Ad­dress­ing a pro­gramme at Lon­don's Ox­ford Univer­sity on Mon­day, Wick­remesinghe said some peo­ple are see­ing "imag­i­nary Chi­nese Naval bases in Sri Lanka. Whereas the Ham­ban­tota Port is a com­mer­cial joint ven­ture be­tween our Ports Author­ity and China Mer­chants - a com­pany listed in the Hong Kong Stock Ex­change."

"There are no for­eign naval bases in Sri Lanka," he em­pha­sised.

His com­ments came days af­ter US Vice-pres­i­dent Mike Pence al­leged China of us­ing "debt diplo­macy" to ex­pand its global in­flu­ence and said that Ham­ban­tota "may soon be­come a for­ward mil­i­tary base for China's grow­ing blue-wa­ter navy".

Sev­eral me­dia re­ports sug­gested that the deep­wa­ter port, which is near a main ship­ping route be­tween Asia and Europe, is likely to play a ma­jor role in China's Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI).

The BRI, also known as the Silk Road Eco­nomic Belt, is a de­vel­op­ment strat­egy pro­posed by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment which fo­cuses on con­nec­tiv­ity and co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Eurasian coun­tries.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment calls the ini­tia­tive "a bid to en­hance re­gional con­nec­tiv­ity and em­brace a brighter fu­ture". How­ever, other na­tions, in­clud­ing In­dia, see it as a push by Bei­jing to take a larger role in global af­fairs with a China-cen­tred trad­ing net­work.

In­dia's has been vo­cal in ex­press­ing its op­po­si­tion to the BRI, which in­cludes the Chi­naPak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor (CPEC) that tra­verses through Pak­istan-oc­cu­pied Kash­mir.

Wick­remesinghe said Lankan Navy's South­ern Com­mand was be­ing re­lo­cated in the Ham­ban­tota port to con­trol se­cu­rity and "the US De­fence Depart­ment has been briefed on these de­vel­op­ments".

He said Sri Lanka was also con­clud­ing a com­mer­cial agree­ment that would see the Air­port Author­ity of In­dia (AAI) tak­ing over the con­trol of the Ham­ban­tota air­port, which was built with high in­ter­est com­mer­cial loan from China.

The Prime Min­is­ter said, "In this at­mos­phere of sus­pi­cion, many coun­tries fear that the South China Sea is­sues can spill over, lead­ing to fu­ture mil­i­tari­sa­tion and mil­i­tary com­pe­ti­tion in the In­dian Ocean."

"This has re­sulted in a num­ber of stake­hold­ers in­ten­si­fy­ing their in­ter­est and pres­ence in the In­dian Ocean by ex­pand­ing their fleets, up­grad­ing their bases, se­cur­ing ac­cess to for­eign ports, and ag­gres­sive naval pos­tur­ing via joint ex­er­cises, ex­tended sor­ties, and live-fire drills.

"The In­dian Ocean re­gion re­quires a com­mon un­der­stand­ing that will en­sure peace and sta­bil­ity within the re­gion... There is also a need to work to­wards build­ing a re­gional frame­work for both trade and se­cu­rity while en­sur­ing that the re­gion re­mains free, open and in­clu­sive...the in­ter­ests of the smaller states are best served by ad­vo­cat­ing for and up­hold­ing a rule-based or­der in the re­gion," he said.

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