Hambantota port and FTA off the agenda for Wickremesinghe-Jinping talks

Hambantota port and FTA off the agenda for Wickremesinghe-Jinping talks

P K Balachandran,
Ranil Wickremesinghe with Xi Jinping

The controversy surrounding the Hambantota port, and the ticklish issue of negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with China, are not on the agenda of the forthcoming talks between Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the One Belt One Road Summit in China this weekend.

Wickremesinghe has been talking of concluding these agreements soon.

The Hambantota port issue has become a politico-nationalistic issue in Sri Lanka. Influential political lobbies are opposing the grant of 80% stake for 99 years to a state owned Chinese company. Even a revised formula by which the Chinese company will offload 20% of its share holding in 10 years to a Sri Lankan entity is not acceptable to the nationalists.

As regards the FTA, it is also ticklish since there is little that Sri Lanka can sell to China to make free trade meaningful. Trade will be heavily in favor of China as it already is.

Meanwhile, sources close to the Chinese here, confirmed that China is not interested in sewing up agreements quickly as the Sri Lankans have shown a tendency to go back on signed deals.

Use of Lankan waters by Chinese submarine

Last month, China had sought permission from the Sri Lankan government to allow one of their submarines to pass through Sri Lankan waters in mid May, but the government denied permission, a source close to the Chinese embassy said.

The embassy had written to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry for clearance, but the minister consulted higher political authorities and came back with “no” for an answer, the source said.

It was indirectly indicated to the Chinese that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to visit Sri Lanka on May 11 and 12 and that it might ruffle feathers in New Delhi if a Chinese submarine passed through Sri Lankan waters at around that period.

In late 2014, India had raised with the Sri Lankan government its concern over the docking of a “nuclear” submarine at the Colombo harbor without India’s knowledge. The Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting Colombo at that time and India felt that China was indulging in a bit of saber rattling aimed at India.

India is very concerned about security in Colombo harbor because 70% of the business of Colombo port is Indian transhipment.

However, sources said that if China were to seek permission for innocent passage later, it may be granted.