As President Mahinda Rajapaksa turned the wheel on Sunday to release the first gush of seawater inside the Hambantota port, India might have rued a missed chance. In 2002, when the port project was on the drawing board, India refused to take it up. Where New Delhi refused, Beijing happily stepped in to take over the $ 1.5 billion project.
Two-and-half years later, Sri Lanka isn’t complaining. The first phase is nearing completion. By November, the first ship is expected to berth at the port, ushering in what many in Sri Lanka think the country’s economic resurgence after years of civil conflict.
"Great Leap Forward" was how the government-run Daily News reported the inauguration on Monday.
"The government hopes that by the time the second phase is completed in 2014, the port on the island’s southern tip will have become a magnet for foreign investment in transshipment and spin-off business opportunities," AFP said.
According to Sri Lanka Ports Authority estimates, the new port -- around 260 km from Colombo on the southern coast -- would initially aim to service around 2,500 of the 70,000 cargo ships that annually ply the East-West Indian Ocean sea lane every year.
By the end of the third phase in 2020, it could handle 8,000 ships.
Besides funding most of the project, China has also supplied men and machines to build it. More than 400 Chinese engineers and workers are working shifts to complete the project ahead of schedule.
Rajapaksa has repeatedly said that the port was commercial in nature and part of the big projects China is helping Sri Lanka to build including a coal power station in the west and an airport near the new seaport.
The port though has India worried about the strategic advantage it could give China as part of a string of ports it is building in Pakistan and Myanmar.
India in fact is setting up a consulate in Hambantota before the end of the year, which many say could help New Delhi to keep an eye on developments.
Rajapaksa took the opportunity to make a nationalistic speech. "We have dug into the earth, broken great rocks, overcome inland and foreign threats,” he said: “We have now entered the path to being the true Wonder of Asia.”