Colombo: Sri Lanka will move its southern naval headquarters to the Hambantota port which is now leased to China, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Saturday.
In his talks with Chinese leaders, Wickremesinghe made it clear that the port will not be allowed to be used for any military purposes, the prime minister’s office said.
In December last year, Sri Lanka handed over the control of the southern sea port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease for $1.12 billion, amid concern over Beijing’s efforts to expand influence in the region.
Opposition leaders have dubbed the deal as a sell out to China. Today’s announcement came amid India’s concerns that Hambantota could be used by China for military purposes.
“The Sri Lanka navy is moving its Southern Command to Hambantota. There is no need to be frightened as security of the port will be under the control of the Sri Lanka Navy," the office quoted Wickremesinghe as saying.
The state-run China Merchant Port Holdings last week paid the final payment of $585 million out of the $1.12 billion price for a 70% stake of the port.
Earlier, China had withheld the Hambantota Port deal’s final tranche of $585 million to Sri Lanka due to Colombo’s objection over its plan to use a man-made island for entertainment purposes, a media report had said.
“Sri Lanka has also informed the Chinese that Hambantota cannot be used for military purposes," the statement said.
The current Sri Lankan military southern command is located at Galle, the southern port. The Hambantota port will only be used for commercial purposes and was expected to trigger much-needed economic development in the neighbouring districts, the office said.
China is to develop an industrial park in addition to running the port with a joint venture partnered by Sri Lanka Ports Authority.
India in 2014 raised concern with Sri Lanka when a Chinese submarine docked at the Colombo Port.
The Hambantota port was a major Chinese-assisted infrastructure project in the home district of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose nearly a decade-long rule was ended by President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015. Rajapaksa’s administration had been criticised heavily for high commercial borrowings from China.