The Hambantota port has seen a sea a criticism ever since the then Mahinda Rajapaksa government laid the foundation for it in 2010. In comparison, any opposition to last Saturday’s agreement between the Sri Lanka government and China Merchants Port Holdings seems like a drizzle in the middle of an ocean.
Given the international attention the port deal has been receiving, one cannot rule out the possibility of a foreign hand behind the protests. The danger of Sri Lanka becoming an unwitting victim of international power rivalries is apparent.
Caveats apart, last Saturday’s deal was the best of the worst options before the Government to overcome the debt crisis – a legacy it had inherited from the Rajapaksa regime.
The deal was a welcome relief in adverse circumstances – an “any port in a storm” situation.
The port deal is a gamble that is worth the risk. The final outcome and the benefits could far outweigh negative consequences the protesters and pessimists portray. They fear, rightly or otherwise, that Sri Lanka may be dragged into a regional or even global conflict.
To say that the Hambantota port has become the fulcrum of the Indian Ocean security debate is an understatement.
For nearly two months, China and India have been bogged down in a face-off in the Himalayas. But neither wants to start a
Situated at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, the harbour is a vantage point. The sea southward from Hambantota extends, without being claimed by any country, all the way to Antarctica. Whoever controls Hambantota, therefore, will control a large part of the southern hemisphere and the Indian Ocean, through which transit more than 80 percent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil.
Hambantota has been the cynosure of all big powers, ever since the West woke up to the reality of a rising China a decade and a half ago. China’s rise as a maritime power has unnerved the United States and India. They see China’s Road-and-Belt Initiative is not only about trade but also about a strategy aimed at enhancing its military power and undermining the traditional security role of the US and India in the Indian Ocean region.
Critics say most ports China builds across the world are dual purpose facilities, meaning they can be used for commercial and military activities. Hambantota, a key port in China’s Road-and-Belt initiative, is one such facility, they say. To support their argument, they point to the 2014 visit of a Chinese submarine and a warship to the Chinese built terminal at the Colombo port. In case of a war between China and the US or between India and China, Sri Lanka’s Chinese controlled ports could become China’s naval bases, they say.
Have no such fears. With certainty, it can be said that nuclear powers will not go to war. Take heart from Wednesday’s US statement offering peace talks with North Korea. It came days after the maverick regime carried out a successful test of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile capable of hitting the US mainland.
The deterrent value of nuclear weapons is one of the key factors why the Third World War has still not happened. For nearly two months, China and India have been bogged down in a face-off in the Himalayas. But neither wants to start a major war. Nuclear powers may find themselves in warlike situations, but will not go to war, unless insane leaders take control of affairs. This is why China and the US have not gone to war over the South China Sea disputes.
With war between ‘responsible’ nuclear powers being only a distant possibility, fears about Hambantota port being used as a naval base against Sri Lanka’s will, despite security-related provisions in the agreement, have little validity. However, the possibility of the installation being used as listening post cannot be ruled out.
Security is a crucial aspect in port deals with foreign companies. In 2006, the United States stopped a move to hand over the management of six key ports to Dubai Ports World which won the tender. This was after protests from those who harboured fears that terrorists could easily infiltrate into the US if its ports were managed by Arabs.
In view of these concerns, the best approach is to bring in more safeguards into the agreement with regard to security matters and remain friends with all big powers. Sri Lanka can take lessons from Greece, Turkey, Australia and Djibouti. Nato member Greece, in a debt crisis much worse than that of Sri Lanka, has sold its Piraeus port to China and allows People Liberation Army vessels to call over. Piraeus is one of Europe’s largest ports.
Turkey, another Nato member, has entered into a joint venture with two Chinese port companies, one of them being China Merchants Port Holdings, to develop container terminals in two strategic ports.
In Australia, another key US ally, the regional government in Northern Territory, has handed over a commercial port in Darwin to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease. The US, which has a military base in Darwin, raised security concerns, but the regional government stood by its decision despite Canberra’s reservations.
Djibouti, on the other hand, has gone to another extreme. It makes the most of its strategic value on Africa’s Indian Ocean coast by allowing any big power to set up bases. It sells its strategic value to strengthen its economy. The US, France, China and now Saudi Arabia have a military presence in this small Horn-of-Africa nation.
In Pakistan, China has gained the controlling stakes in the strategic port of Gwadar, which is, like Hambantota, a key link in China’s One-Belt-One-Road Initiative, though it has made India feel insecure. Indian analysts have described China’s presence in ports in countries around India as a “string of pearls’ that undermines India’s dominance in the South Asian part of the Indian Ocean.
If security issues can be handled diligently, Hambantota can even emerge as another Shanghai. A sluggish fishing port city until the Western colonial powers, including Britain, wrested it from China after the First Opium War in 1842, Shanghai soon emerged as a port city and the place to be – the Paris of the East, with the best art, the greatest architecture, and the strongest business in Asia, not to mention its elegant restaurants, race course, and places for vice and indulgence. Industries boomed, financial institutions flourished and the people prospered. The city’s economy survived the World War and the Communist-era hardships. When China began to open up in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s socialist-led market economy, made Shanghai the engine of the country’s commercial renaissance. If China is a dragon, he said, Shanghai is its head. Today Shanghai makes up one fifth of China’s GDP.
Perhaps, Hambantota can be a Shanghai in the near future. But Sri Lanka has to be eternally vigilant, especially in view of security concerns and criticism that in the Road-and-Belt initiative, there are benefits for China and only crumbs for others.