Sri Lanka is finally set to sign a US$1.1 billion deal to lease the port of Hambantota to China, following controversy regarding the national security implications of the deal. Along with the Pakistani port of Gwadar near the Gulf of Oman, the Sri Lankan port is poised to play an important role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, situated in the middle of a vital energy supply line in the Indian Ocean.
To ease concerns about the possible use of the port by the Chinese navy, the Sri Lankan government approved a revised deal to cut the Chinese firm’s stake to 70% and assure that the port would not be used for military purposes, Reuters reports.
But as Narayani Basu writes for the Diplomat, despite the fact that the revised deal assuaged some Indian concerns, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind who will ultimately decide what happens with the port:
While all eyes have been turned northwards [to the Doklam standoff] as a result, there is no doubt that India has been taking steps to protect itself in the Indian Ocean as well – allying itself with the United States and Japan in a clear bid to counter growing Chinese influence. But these are baby steps as yet – not only has New Delhi been lethargic in building strategic partnerships, but it lacks China’s skill in conducting what Brahma Chellaney calls “debt-trap diplomacy.”
As far as Hambantota is concerned, the deal may look promising on paper for India. But as long as Sri Lanka remains economically at China’s mercy, New Delhi would be wise to remember that Beijing remains free to call the shots.