China can extend Hambantota port lease to 198 years, Sri Lankan minister says
- Beijing denies the deal is being renegotiated after reports that Colombo is revisiting the agreement
- Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said the previous government had agreed to a 99-year lease with the option of another 99 years
Hambantota’s location at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, overlooking South Asia’s vital sea lanes, makes it a potential key maritime hub in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of two-time former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, said he wanted to renegotiate the deal with China soon after he took office in late 2019, but later denied he had such a plan.
However, on February 6 the chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority told Ceylon Today that the president was revisiting the port deal. General Daya Ratnayake also said Sri Lanka had not gained much from the agreement and that it had relocated its naval base from the area controlled by China “after many discussions with the Chinese officials”.
“We are revisiting the proposal even now,” Ratnayake was quoted as saying. “It was unfortunate and such a deal on Hambantota port shouldn’t have been done. But the review process is going on.”
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena added to uncertainty over the deal on Saturday, telling the same newspaper that “the previous government made a mistake on the Hambantota port deal when they cancelled the lease and gave it on a longer period of 99 years plus another 99 years once the first term ends”.
But he did not say whether the government intended to make changes to the agreement.
China on Wednesday denied the deal was being renegotiated, with foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin instead saying that the port’s operations were expanding.
“The relevant reports are inconsistent with facts,” Wang said at a regular press briefing in Beijing.
He said the deal was negotiated under an “equal and voluntary basis” between the two countries, and that it was intended to transform the port into a logistics, transport and industrial hub in the Indian Ocean.
“With mutual efforts from the Chinese and Sri Lankan sides, the Hambantota port has overcome the challenges of the pandemic and has maintained good momentum in expanding operations,” he said.
Pang Zhongying, an international relations scholar with the Ocean University of China, said Beijing was likely to face more pressure over its activities in Sri Lanka given its growing rivalry with the United States and also India in the region.
“Sri Lanka has long been in India’s backyard and it has a complicated relationship with India. And as the [Joe] Biden administration pushes to deepen [America’s] Indo-Pacific strategy, China is likely to face even more challenges in the region,” he said.