Strategic Connotations: Development of Hambantota Port
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

Hambantota port is situated approximately 10 nautical miles from one of the busiest shipping lanes, in southern Sri Lanka. About 200 cargo vessels use it every day and it can handle vessels up to 100, 000 DWT. The Sri Lankan government hopes to benefit from the increased numbers of ships that could use its facilities; presently about 70,000 ships that sail through the Indian Ocean every year. The Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa opened the port in November 2010. District town of Hambantota is his constituency and a Sinhala stronghold. Even though the port project is said to constitute President Rajapaksa’s larger efforts to develop infrastructure in the southern district, yet some of the Indian strategic thinkers view this as part of a larger and long term strategy of China to secure its energy routes and expand its influence in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Others see it as purely a commercial venture with China providing a large portion of the funds with Chinese companies only executing the project and the operation of the port not being done by China. Also when bidding for development of the port was invited in 2005 the Indian companies were not much interested in bidding, doubting the wisdom of investing in a project which may not be commercially viable. Further, the nature of political system in India is not conducive to placing long term strategic interests above the commercial interests.

However, apart from the economic and commercial aspects of the project, there is a wide degree of acceptance amongst the Indian decision making circles that the facilities are of dual-use in nature. They can be transformed into a military post to station warships and submarines, store fuel and utilised as an air strip for fighter planes. Besides, it will also give China not only an access but also certain level of control over strategic sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and it would facilitate China to consolidate its position in the Indian Ocean, especially on India’s southern coasts. Some of the Chinese experts and strategic analysts have also talked about possibilities of obtaining naval bases in IOR for China in order to ensure its energy security. Such views have not been contradicted by Chinese government thus causing security concerns amongst Indian strategic community and to some extent amongst the defence and security planners.

Further, development of Hambantota has to be seen in the larger context of China’s execution of similar port projects in Sittwe, Myanmar and Gwadar in Pakistan. China has also offered to develop Chittagong and Sonadia near Cox Bazaar in Bangladesh as deep water ports. Thus such activity of China in IOR is viewed largely in India as part of much touted ‘String of Pearls’ strategy i.e. strategic encirclement of India. Though the Chinese overall objective is seen as to reduce vulnerability of its sea lanes of communication and to improve its energy security by reducing dependence on pirate infested Malacca Straits yet concerted efforts on part of China to use its economic muscle to advance its strategic interests largely, find a negative resonance in India. In times to come, Hambantota could possibly be used by China to monitor the movement of Indian ships and submarines and it could also provide unhindered access for Chinese war ships and submarines in IOR upsetting the naval power balance.

However, sieged with rising Chinese influence in Sri Lanka India has been striving to contest the ever increasing inroads being made by China. Hambantota project was started in 2007 when Sri Lankan government was facing the onslaught of LTTE. Both China and Pakistan had provided offensive weapon systems and other military aid to Sri Lankan Armed forces in their struggle against the LTTE. India on the other hand had provided only defensive weapons. Of course, Sri Lanka like any other country in South Asia has been using the competition between China and India to get the best deal for itself. India, being the only neighbour of Sri Lanka it is evident that it has problems only with India and not others; therefore it uses other powers to pursue its national interests like other smaller neighbours of India.

While Hambantota has come up recently, it needs to be noted that India already has a presence in Trincomalee which was used as a naval port by the British during World War II. Trincomalee situated in north East Sri Lanka, 272 kilometres away from Hambantota can offer some degree of competition to Hambantota. There are oil storage facilities in Trincomalee being operated by Indian Oil Corporation which is of historic and strategic significance as this facility is the largest one located between the Middle East and Singapore. Further, Trincomalee has many advantages of a natural harbour and it can accommodate ships with large draft. Additionally, IOC is also the only foreign oil retailer in Sri Lanka’s oil sector. With the conflict against LTTE having been won, Sri Lanka government is keen to develop the Tamil populated Northern and North Eastern provinces. India is undertaking a number of development projects in Tamil dominated areas.

Recently, the Sri Lankan Port Authority has made plans for investing more in Trincomalee. Australia is putting up $700 million for the first phase of a project plan that includes a deepwater jetty and stockpiling facility. Rest of the phases (with a budget of $2 billion) includes development of a bulk commodities terminal with stockpiling and blending capabilities, an export coke production plant and an iron ore palletisation plant at Trincomalee Bay. Thus the economic and strategic value of Trincomalee is expected to be enhanced as it would become hub of trade and commercial activity linking the export and import markets of Asia, Africa and Australia and it will also cater to the growing demands of the Indian market.

To complement its developmental efforts India had opened a consulate at Hambantota in November 2010. A consulate not only provides an access for India in southern Sri Lanka but also enables New Delhi to streamline its initiatives where China is actively engaged. Besides, India has also undertaken infrastructural development projects in several parts of Sri Lanka. India is reconstructing the Tsunami damaged Southern railway corridor from Galle to Matara in Southern Sri Lanka, part of the same province as Hambantota. India is also renovating the Palaly Airport, which will be serving as a regional civil aviation hub. Kankesanthurai Harbour is also being developed by India for regional and domestic trade and commerce. This project will also increase connectivity and people to people contact between India and Sri Lanka. Sometime back India’s Defence Secretary on a visit to Sri Lanka had reviewed the progress of these two projects.

The increasing possibilities of China providing JF-17 fighter planes to Sri Lanka, apart from its war time aids, has prompted India to enhance its defence co-operation with Sri Lanka. India has initiated first Annual Defence Dialogue during Indian Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar’s visit in December 2010. The second such dialogue was held at New Delhi in end January 2012. India and Sri Lanka have agreed to include issues regarding the safety and security of their sea lanes in their bilateral exchanges as they share common concerns. Moreover, both the countries have agreed to commence staff-level talks between the navies and armies and to conduct joint naval exercises. India has also agreed to offer 1,400 training placements for Sri Lanka’s military service personnel in Indian defence and staff training colleges – despite the shortage of seats – to further strengthen its strategic and defence engagements with Sri Lankan. In fact, a large number of Sri Lankan officers and sailors are already undergoing training in Indian establishments.

India has also factored in the domestic ramifications of increasing defence co-operation with Sri Lanka in a situation where a solution to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is still being worked out. For the first time since the end of the armed conflict, India has taken a position during the Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna’s visit to Sri Lanka during November 2010, who called for a structured solution to the Tamil problem. Again during his visit to Sri Lanka in mid-January this year External Affairs Minister hoped for a lasting political solution to the outstanding issues between the minority Tamil-speaking Sri Lankans and the government.

Apart from other developmental efforts India is also assisting in setting up a Jaffna Cultural Centre and restore the Duriappa Stadium. As part of reconstructing war ravaged Northern Sri Lanka, India has pledged a line of credit of $ US 800 million at a concessional rate for various aspects of the Northern Railway project. A line connecting Medawachchiya-Madhu has already been launched and work has also begun on the Madhu-Talaimannar and Omanthai-Pallai railway lines. In addition, a new pier at Talaimannar will be built so as to resume the stalled ferry service between Talaimannar (Sri Lanka) and Rameswaram (India).

Furthermore, Indian government has planned a Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project which involves deepening the Palk straits between India and Sri Lanka to provide a continuous navigable sea route around the Indian Peninsula. However, due to political, religious and environmental reasons the project has so far failed to take off. This project would have reduced the dependence of international shipping on Sri Lankan ports in the South but improved the relevance of the ports in Northern Sri Lanka and nearby Indian ports.

Therefore, although India’s efforts to counter increasing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka have been cautious and low key, yet India is striving to re-establish its dominance in its backyard to stall it from becoming a Chinese post. Further, there is also a view that close cultural, historical, ethnic and economic linkages between the two nations in addition to geographic proximity cannot be over ridden by a few projects and agreements with China. Yet, Indian decision-makers have to remain wary of Chinese manouvres to enhance its influence in Sri Lanka as part of their grand strategy to expand their footprints in the Indian Ocean region.


Published Date: 29th February 2012

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