COLOMBO: Sri Lanka has announced that it is shifting a naval base to a port built and controlled by China, in a move that will strengthen security at a harbour that foreign powers fear China could use for military purposes. The base is currently located in the tourist district of Galle, and will be moved 125 km east along Lanka's southern coast to Hambantota, near to the main shipping route between Asia and Europe. The $1.5 billion deepwater port is likely to play a major role in China's “Belt and Road” initiative and is under a 99-year lease to China Merchants Port Holdings at a cost of $1.12 billion.
Government and diplomatic sources has said that the United States, India, and Japan have however raised concerns that China might use the port a naval base. Both, the Lankan government and the Chinese embassy in Colombo have denied the report, saying the agreement for the port deal included a clause that it cannot be used for military purposes. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office released a statement saying, “Sri Lanka has already informed China that Hambantota port cannot be used for military purposes. Since the security of the port will be under the control of Sri Lanka navy, there is no need to fear.”
Navy spokesman Dinesh Bandara said a naval unit has already been established in Hambantota and construction work for the base is under way. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the Hambantota port project was to help Sri Lanka achieve its aim of becoming a logistics hub in the Indian Ocean, which was good for the country's economic development and the region as a whole.