Wiry Chinese men in white helmets carry bottles of green tea and chilled water as they walk out of their neatly built prefabricated blue-and-white homes as the afternoon sun blazes over Hambantota on Sri Lanka’s south coast.
There is a small pool in the middle of lush lawns. Next to their homes are basketball courts and a football field. There’s no photography allowed of these details.
Only if you happen to be in a helicopter passing overhead, can you see the big picture: These prefab homes — airconditioned with web and cable access — are neatly arranged to spell the word “China”.
Quietly and efficiently, the Chinese are at work here, 260 km south of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, creating one of their “pearls” around India, modern ports that they can use for strategic and industrial purposes.
The seas below Sri Lanka are part of an important shipping lane and, for China, Hambantota will be an important transit for general cargo and, importantly, oil from Sudan’s vast fields (where too China is in competition with India)
There could have been Indians at work here.
The $1-billion (Rs 4,870 crore) Hambantota Port Project was offered to India seven years ago, a highly placed diplomatic source told HT, on condition of anonymity. New Delhi declined, doubting if the port could be profitable, the source said.
Now, India can only watch as China’s Exim Bank pumps in $360 million (more than Rs. 17,500 crore) to complete the first phase of the port by next year, at the end of which three big ships could dock here. The port will accomodate 33 ships by 2020.
Since it’s in his home district, Hambantota is being closely monitored by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Land and resources are no problem.
“We have acquired 1,600 hectares of land for the entire project. About 300 hectares are being currently used (Mumbai Port is spread over only 47 hectares),” said P.A. Agil Hewageegana, deputy director of the Hambantota Port Project. “But it has been ensured that work for the next two phases will progress without trouble.”
At the prefab-home complex, the Chinese have a quick smoke before boarding an airconditioned bus. They are on their way deep inside the site where giant cranes and dredgers are at work.
As he showed me around, Sri Lanka Ports Authority Superintendent Priyantha Dewasurendra talked of the Chinese request when work started in 2008.
“Every afternoon, between 12 noon and 2 p.m., they needed to rest,” he said. “The break, they said, would improve their efficiency for the rest of the day.”
The Lankans had no problem with the two-hour break for the 400 Chinese engineers, mechanics, drivers, crane operators and cooks. The project is running ahead of schedule. “The first phase was scheduled to end in 2011, April,” said Deputy Director Hewageegana. “But we are confident that it will be over by the end of 2010.”
For India, Hambantota could become a port of bother, if not trouble.
“The problem (in this project) is the potential, the facilities that could be given to the Chinese at the port,” said D.S. Rajan of the Chennai Centre for China Studies.
“It is not like a telecommunication project,” Rajan said over phone from Chennai. “India should keep a close watch and gather more data on the project.”
Manoranjan Mohanty of New Delhi’s Institute of China Studies said both India and China have a natural need to expand naval infrastructure.
“India should not take an alarmist view and push Sri Lanka towards China and US,” said Mohanty. “India should not promote a competitive military game in Sri Lanka.”
For Sri Lanka, the importance of China is growing.
Former Lankan diplomat K. Godage, who served in India, said he could understand India’s concerns over Hambantota but “India has to take into account the relations between China and Sri Lanka”.
“The Chinese are also conscious of India’s presence in Sri Lanka while they themselves are thousands of miles away,” said Godage.
Sri Lankan officials say the port will be owned and operated by the government; China is the contractor.
“India has nothing to worry,” said Ports and Civil Aviation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa. “We have taken a loan from China’s Exim Bank, which we have to pay back. China is not doing it for free. Like the Colombo port, any shipping company would be able to use the Hambantota port.”
That may be. But to a nervous India, Hambantota will always serve as a reminder of China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean.