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India moves to secure Lanka port rights

NEW DELHI : After seeing a Chinese spy ship berth at Hambantota port in spite of its objections, India has stepped up efforts to expand its presence in strategic infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.

The ministry of shipping has initiated talks with the Sri Lankan government to secure terminal rights for Indian companies in existing and upcoming ports in the island nation, said two officials aware of the development.

The plan involves leveraging these terminal rights at ports having deep draught to help Indian firms secure a foothold in the transoceanic cargo trade, said one of the two officials mentioned above.

China recently berthed a satellite and missile tracking ship at Hambantota, which has been given to Chinese on long-term lease, after initial denial of permission by Sri Lankan authorities due to pressure from India.

The second official said that although India is not considering building a new port in Sri Lanka, it looking for a foothold in existing and upcoming ports that fall in the international trade route from Hong Kong, Singapore to Dubai and other West Asian countries. 

“Talks are on with Sri Lanka to get rights for Indian companies to build cargo and shipping terminals at ports in Sri Lanka, other than Hambantota that is run by the Chinese,” the official said asking not to be named.

The official said talks are at a fairly advanced stage and that terminal construction projects may soon land with Indian companies.

Queries sent to the ministry of ports, shipping and waterways, ministry of external affairs and and Sri Lankan high commission remained unanswered at press time. 

The Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) late last year signed an agreement with India’s Adani Group to build a terminal next to a $500-million Chinese-run jetty at the sprawling port in the capital Colombo. 

More such projects may land with Indian engineering, construction and shipping firms in places like Galle and Oluvil. 

Both the ports are on either side of Hambantota and fall in line of international shipping routes. 

There are also developments projects at Kankesanthurai port on the northern tip of Sri Lanka, very close to India, and at Trincomalee port on its north eastern coast.

“It is important because Sri Lanka is a strategically located island. All the countries who want to have some kind of influence in the Indian Ocean region, are looking for some kind of influence in this island. For India it is important that we also need to have some kind of strategic presence; otherwise, other countries will try their best to have their strategic presence. China is very much there. We need to have this kind of strategic presence sometimes,” said Gulbin Sultana, associate fellow, South Asia Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.

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