By Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe
As the first ship entered the newly opened port facility at Hambantota on November 18, there continues to be more speculation that the facility could potentially be used as a Chinese naval base as part of a so called ‘string of pearls’ strategy to encircle India. However, evidence suggests that the Hambantota port has a largely different function that is likely to alter Sri Lanka’s political and economic centre of gravity.
For many decades, plans to develop a port at Hambantota have been talked about and studied, but they remained a low priority to successive governments that were either unable to acquire adequate funds or were preoccupied by the outbreak of three full scale insurrections.
However, this state of affairs changed when Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected as Sri Lanka’s president in November 2005 during which a notable feature of his election platform was a strong emphasis on infrastructure development. As such, the most significant project among his development ambitions was to construct a large, modern, world class port facility at Hambantota.
However, the breakdown of the Norwegian mediated ceasefire agreement (2002-2007) led to the commencement of the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war, from 2006-2009, and temporarily suspended these initiatives. Nonetheless, even while the war was at its peak, funding for the development of the Hambantota port was actively sought, and in view of India’s disinterest and reluctance to be involved, China proved willing to offer funding and technical assistance and by early 2008, construction to build the port at Hambantota finally commenced.
Given the size of the port project, Hambantota has been the subject of much speculation and negative commentary. A salient example of this was seen by Indian academic Professor Brahma Chellaney who in April 2009 told The Times of India: “The Chinese are courting Sri Lanka because of its location in the Indian Ocean; Chinese engineers are currently building a billion-dollar port in the country’s southeast, Hambantota, and this is the latest `pearl’ in China’s strategy to control vital sea-lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific Oceans by assembling a `string of pearls’ in the form of listening posts, special naval arrangements and access to ports.”
However, such views fail to take into consideration wider historical and political considerations. The significance of what is happening in Hambantota is far greater than the port project itself. In fact, there are a series of other major development projects in the Hambantota District that include the construction of a brand new international airport, a major highway connecting Colombo with Hambantota, an international cricket stadium and a large, modern, international conference facility that can hold thousands of delegates.
In addition to the port, all of these projects suggest that the development of the Hambantota District, which is also President Rajapaksa’s home constituency, is in fact symbolic of a major shift in the balance of economic and political power away from Colombo District, which has historically been the centre of commerce on the island and has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on development.
Since Sri Lanka attained independence from Britain in 1948 power has remained in the hands of a minority euro-centric Colombo political and social elite. As a consequence, major development often remained skewed towards Colombo, much to the detriment of rural areas in the south, east and north. Such lopsided development seriously contributed to fostering political unrest that fueled two Sinhalese rebellions in 1971 and 1987-1989 respectively, and a Tamil separatist insurrection from 1983 to 2009.
Since the end of the civil war the Sri Lankan government has aimed to implement an ambitious development strategy, which includes the construction of new highways and roads, energy infrastructure such as the Norochcholai and Sampur coal power plants and the Upper Kotmale and Uma Oya multi-purpose hydroelectric projects, oil refineries at Sapugaskanda and Hambantota, and the construction of the Colombo south harbour,
The significance of the Hambantota port can be seen in its proper light. For instance, by developing a world class port facility accompanied by an international airport and supporting industrial and commercial facilities, it is evident that Hambantota is symbolic of a realignment of economic and political power away from Colombo towards the underdeveloped South of Sri Lanka. And it is the Hambantota port that will serve as the catalyst to drive the economic development of the region.
Given that Hambantota is situated only 10 nautical miles from the strategic Indian Ocean East-West shipping arterial, it has a critical geographical advantage which neither the Chinese built ports of Gwadar in Pakistan, Sittwe in Burma, nor any Indian ports can compete against.
Although Hambantota has been built with Chinese assistance, it is still unlikely that the Sri Lankan government will allow a permanent Chinese military presence on the island given President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ongoing policy to maintain amicable relations with India.
This would indicate that Sri Lanka is seeking to balance its strategic considerations between India and China, and is unlikely to act in a manner that would jeopardize its relations with both emerging superpowers who are also its key strategic partners.
(Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is an analyst who specialises in South Asian and Indian Ocean politics and security.)