China won’t be allowed to use Hambantota for ‘military purposes’: Wickremesinghe

Updated on Aug 16, 2022 04:34 PM IST

“The present ship did not come under the category of military. [It] came under the category of a research ship. That is how [we] permitted the ship to come to Hambantota,” the Sri Lankan President said

Even before Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry formally announced its decision to allow the Yuan Wang 5’s visit on August 13, there was a feeling in New Delhi that Colombo would not be able to stand up to the pressure from Beijing, the people said. (AFP Photo)
Even before Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry formally announced its decision to allow the Yuan Wang 5’s visit on August 13, there was a feeling in New Delhi that Colombo would not be able to stand up to the pressure from Beijing, the people said. (AFP Photo)

Against the backdrop of growing concerns in India over a Chinese surveillance vessel’s visit to Hambantota port, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said China will not be allowed to use the facility for “military purposes”.

Also Read: Ex-SL Navy chief lobbied for Chinese spy ship docking at Hambantota Port

Sri Lanka gave in to pressure from China and last week reversed a decision to defer the visit by the Yuan Wang 5 to Hambantota, which is controlled by the Chinese side. Both India and the US had expressed concerns about the call by the vessel, used by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to track satellites and ballistic missiles.

“We do not want Hambantota to be used for military purposes,” Wickremesinghe said in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper of Japan on Sunday, two days before the Yuan Wang 5 sailed into the port in southern Sri Lanka.

“The present ship did not come under the category of military. [It] came under the category of a research ship. That is how [we] permitted the ship to come to Hambantota,” Wickremesinghe said, explaining his government’s decision.

Earlier this month, the Indian side had sent out a strong message regarding concerns attached to the ship’s visit. India’s high commissioner had taken up the matter with authorities in Colombo, and the issue was also raised by external affairs minister S Jaishankar and US secretary of state Antony Blinken in their separate meetings with Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Ali Sabry on the sidelines of an Asean meet in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, people familiar with the matter said.

Even before Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry formally announced its decision to allow the Yuan Wang 5’s visit on August 13, there was a feeling in New Delhi that Colombo would not be able to stand up to the pressure from Beijing, the people said.

Last week, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry had, without naming India, said it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called security concerns to pressure Sri Lanka” over the ship’s visit.

Sri Lanka is currently grappling with its worst financial crisis, which has resulted in severe shortages of food and fuel, and the government has turned to both India and China for assistance. India has provided financial assistance, including lines of credit and deferring loan repayments, worth $3.8 billion since the start of this year, whereas China has so far provided $76 million as emergency grants.

Hambantota port, close to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, was built by state-run China Merchants Port Holdings as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Sri Lanka leased the port to China for 99 years in 2017 after it was unable to pay back the loan.

Wickremesinghe, who was elected president on July 20 after his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned, said there was no problem with loaning the port to China. “This is nothing new,” he said, pointing out that countries such as Australia and South Africa too have leased ports.

He said he intends to finalise talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a bailout by the end of August. “We will also start the discussions with our creditors…China, India and Japan are the largest creditors,” he said.

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