NEW DELHI: Sri Lanka may find it difficult to wriggle out of China’s clutches because of the massive debt it owes to Beijing but to balance things out, it is now set to allow India to jointly develop the Trincomalee port in northeastern part of the country.
Diplomatic sources said Sri Lanka has readied an MoU for joint development of the project and that it’s likely to be signed during PM Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Colombo. Official sources also confirmed that Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe would visit India this month to review bilateral ties.
India has in the past not been particularly enthused about developing the Trincomalee port as the project did not appear economically feasible. As former Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa claims, the island nation under him had first approached India for developing the Hambantota port in south and allowed China to come in only after India refused the offer.
India had the same fear about Hambantota as it felt developing the port there was not going to be financially viable. While India was vindicated in the sense that the port failed to generate enough traffic, it now has to contend with a heavy Chinese presence there. Sri Lanka has now allowed China to build a special economic zone in Hambantota and also to further expand the Mattala airport.
The commercial aspect aside, Sri Lanka’s decision to jointly develop the Trincomalee port with India is being seen as a good sign by the government and independent strategic affairs experts.
According to strategic thinker Brahma Chellaney, ensnared in a Chinese debt trap, Sri Lanka is increasingly cognizant of and concerned about the growing implications that this situation holds for its strategic autonomy.
“For example, from a Chinese-financed Sri Lankan project, Hambantota is becoming a Chinese-owned and Chinese-run enclave in the Indian Ocean,” says Chellaney.
“Jointly developing the Trincomalee port with India cannot counterbalance the Chinese leverage over Sri Lanka but it can help Colombo build countervailing influence. A Trincomalee port joint project with India also makes sense in terms of Sri Lanka’s domestic ethnic considerations,” he adds.
The MoU which the two sides have agreed to sign includes plans to set up a petroleum refinery at Trincomalee.
With Sri Lanka owing most of its external debt to China, it has been hard-pressed to not be seen as acting against India’s security interests while working around its economic reliance on Beijing. Official sources here said they greatly appreciate Wickremesinghe’s remarks in Tokyo this week that his country, as it sought to become the regional hub in Indian Ocean, was not going to allow any military activity at Lankan ports.
“We want to ensure that we develop all our ports, and all these ports are used for commercial activity, transparent activity, and will not be available to anyone for any military activity,” he said after his meeting with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe.
Sri Lanka, however, has backed China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative about which India has serious reservations. After Wickremesinghe’s visit to China last year, the two sides said in a joint statement that they would use the development of China’s Maritime Silk Road as an opportunity to further advance infrastructure development.