The Pulse

China’s Sri Lankan Port Ambitions Persist

Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port will continue to receive Chinese attention.

China’s Sri Lankan Port Ambitions Persist
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), a subsidiary of the state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), has proposed the construction of new facilities at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port. According to an IHS Maritime 360 report, the CHEC proposal focuses on the construction of a new shipbuilding and repair dockyard. The proposal is part of the third phase of the construction of the Hambantota Port.

Incidentally, CHEC is at the center of a Sri Lankan government investigation into corrupt practices by the former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, who unexpectedly lost a January early presidential election to Maithripala Sirisena, was widely perceived as friendly to Chinese investment in Sri Lanka. As the South China Morning Post detailed last week, CHEC is accused to having offered a bribe to facilitate Rajapaksa’s reelction bid. CHEC won a $1.4 billion contract during the Rajapaksa presidency to build the Colombo Port City, a project that was frozen after the Sirisena administration came to powerand began reviewing Chinese contracts that were awarded during the Rajapaksa era.

CHEC has denied all accusations of impropriety as “baseless and false” and rejects the idea that it bribed Rajapaksa. “CHEC calls on all the relevant Sri Lankan officials and parties not to misunderstand their responsible and cooperative partner, and not to send a wrong signal to the investors from China and all other countries,” it said in a statement.

According to reports last week, despite the investigation against CHEC, the company has received the Sri Lankan government’s approval to move ahead with a feasibility study for the proposed additions to Hambantota Port. According to the Sri Lankan Ports ministry, CHEC has also proposed that it would handle the management and operations of the dockyard.

Hambantota, situated on the southern coast of the island, is an important Sri Lankan port city. Historically, it was an important port for eastern Asian seafarers and traders heading to Africa or the Middle East. CHEC has long been involved in the construction of Hambantota port, which launched in January 2008. The port, formally named the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port after the former Sri Lankan president, is being constructed primarily by CHEC and  another Chinese state-owned firm, Sinohydro.

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With the completion of all three construction phases, the port will be the largest in South Asia, encompassing over 4,000 acres and with the ability to simultaneously berth 33 vessels. The port facility at Hambantota is widely cited by Indian analysts concerned about China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean as a node in Beijing’s perceived “String of Pearls” strategy to encircle India with civilian port facilities. Last fall, a Chinese warship and submarine visited Sri Lanka’s Colombo port, raising concern in New Delhi that China-backed civilian facilities in Sri Lankan and elsewhere would become regularly used for the Chinese navy. The Sirisena government banned port visits by Chinese submarines earlier this year, in part to ease Indian concerns.