Sri Lanka has played down India’s concerns regarding Hambantota port, with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe saying Colombo won’t enter into a military alliance with any country or make its bases available to foreign countries.
Sri Lanka signed a $1.1 billion deal with China in July to lease the Hambantota port to Beijing. A state-run Chinese company will have a 99-year lease on the port. The deal will help Sri Lanka repay billions of dollars borrowed from Beijing.
This had led to concerns by India that the port will be used by the Chinese for military purposes.
However, Wickremesinghe, at the opening ceremony of the Indian Ocean Conference in Colombo on Thursday, told the delegates that the port will not be used as a base by any foreign military, the Sri Lankan media reported.
Addressing the delegates, including Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, he said: “Let me refer to Sri Lanka’s decision to develop its major sea ports, especially the Hambantota port which some claim to be a military base. I state clearly that (our) government does not enter into military alliances with any country or make our bases available to foreign countries.”
The Prime Minister said his country will continue military cooperation such as training, supply of equipment and taking part in joint exercises with friendly countries.
He said the Indian Ocean Conference was taking place at a time when global and financial economic power shifts point towards Asia.
“Only the Sri Lanka Armed Forces have the responsibility for military activities in our ports and airports. We are also working with foreign private investors on the commercial development of our ports,” he added.
He said that in the absence of an effective multilateral trade agreements for the Indian Ocean region, Sri Lanka had decided to enter into bilateral agreements with neighbouring littoral states.
“This is the only option available. We already have Free Trade Agreements with India and Pakistan. We are in the process of deepening FTA with India to enable greater economic cooperation. We will finalize a FTA with Singapore and then conclude similar agreements with other countries in the Bay of Bengal region. We are also negotiating an FTA with China,” he said.