strategically located Hambantota port in South Sri Lanka on Monday,
beating China in the race to establish great power presence in the
port and the region.
The US embassy here announced on Monday, that the Pacific Fleet’s
transport ship USNS Fall River will be on a Pacific Partnership
goodwill mission to Hambantota and its environs from March 6 to 18.
Military and civil personnel from Japan, Australia and Sri Lanka will
be holding joint exercises through the 12 day mission.
Though touted as a humanitarian or disaster relief exercise with the
Sri Lankan, Australian and Japanese navies, the choice of Hambantota
port for holding it, and the partnership with critical regional
allies, give the mission a unmistakable security dimension.
The embassy statement says that the multinational effort includes
free community health clinics; school and hospital renovations;
learning exchanges for medical and disaster-relief responders;
seminars to promote women’s roles in peace and security; and public
performances by the U.S. 7th Fleet Band.
“Through this Pacific Partnership mission, the United States will
continue to help Sri Lanka respond more quickly to humanitarian
challenges. At the same time, our Sri Lankan partners will share with
us their valuable lessons learned from past natural disasters,” the
statement quotes U.S. Ambassador Atul Keshap as saying.
“Our time in Sri Lanka is about building relationships and the
capability and capacity to work together for the future,” added Capt.
Stanfield Chien, Commander of the mission.
Pacific Partnership is the largest multinational humanitarian
exercise, the embassy says.
Significantly, the places earmarked for the fleet’s activities fall in
the pocket borough of the former pro-Chinese and anti-American Sri
Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is now a key political player
as a leader of the Joint Opposition Group.
Having constructed the Hambantota port at a cost of more than a
billion US dollars, China is poised to take over the port through a
debt-equity swap in which it will get 80 percent stake in the port for
99 years. But the US and India have been concerned about the
possibility of the port’s being used to support China’s military and
strategic plans in the Indian Ocean region.
America’s decision to hold the US Pacific Fleet’s humanitarian Pacific
Partnership Mission at the Hambantota port, in association with
strategic regional allies Japan, Australia, and the current
pro-Western Sri Lankan government, could help forestall attempts by
China to get control of port.
The Hambantota port is currently embroiled in a controversy over the
extent of China’s stake in it. The Joint Opposition led by former
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is opposing the deal totally, and Ports
Minister Arjuna Ranatunga is seeking the replacement of the 80% stake
by a 65% stake. President Maithripala Sirisena is looking into the
issue to see that Sri Lanka’s interests are not affected.
The controversy has delayed the finalization of the agreement. And
this has come in handy to powers which do not want China to get
entrenched in the port.
When Rajapaksa was President in 2005-2014, he lurched towards China to
the discomfiture of the US and India .He gave the Chinese,
multi-billion infrastructure projects including the contract to build
Rubbing India on the wrong side, two Chinese diesel powered submarines
berthed at a Chinese-run terminal in Colombo port from September 7
to14 2014. This almost coincided with the visit of the Chinese
President, Xi Jinping, to Sri Lanka on September 16 and 17.
On November 6, 2014, a nuclear submarine called at the same
Chinese-run terminal even though in September, New Delhi had
protested. The then Sri Lankan navy chief Adm.Jayantha Perera declared
that Sri Lanka would not allow anything that compromises India’s
security, but cabinet minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa categorically
stated that Colombo will not talk to New Delhi on this issue. New
Delhi was irked because Sri Lanka was ignoring the India-Sri Lanka
Accord of 1987 which enjoined Colombo not to let any foreign power use
its ports and other facilities against India’s interests.
Although India is not part of the on-going Pacific Partnership in
Hambantota, it is keen that the port does not fall into the hands of
the Chinese in a way that will pose a security threat to India. Japan,
which is struggling to ensure freedom of navigation in the face of
Chinese obduracy in the South China Sea, is keen to see that the
Western Indian Ocean does not come under Chinese hegemony to pose a
threat to navigation. As an ally of the US, Australia shares America’s
concerns vis-à-vis China in the Asia-Pacific region.