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No strategic aims in H’tota Port project

Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Cheng Xueyuan has met President Maithripala Sirisena to clarify his country’s stance over allegations that the Hambantota Port funded and built by the Chinese government as part of the Belt and Road initiative, may be used for military and strategic purposes.

The meeting comes a day after the Sri Lankan government announced it was shifting the naval base from Galle to Hambantota to strengthen security at the harbour. An article published in the New York Times earlier this week alleged that the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) had funded former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2015 Presidential bid and that the Port was to be used by the Chinese government to further its geopolitical interest in the region.

“The fake news goes against all facts and is full of prejudice,” Spokesperson for the Chinese embassy Lou Chong said.

“We have no intention of interfering with the domestic affairs of a sovereign country. The Hambantota Port is a commercial venture for commercial purposes.”

The spokesperson cited that the article was published on the same day China released the final tranche of the investment value for the Port.

He added that the illusion of ‘debt trap’ was a false proposition created by Western media to obstruct the joint development of China and developing countries. “Sri Lanka was already in debt even before we came. Out of Sri Lanka’s total debt of USD 51.824 Billion outstanding Chinese loans account for 10.6% (USD 5.5 Billion). 61.5% of Chinese loans are concessional ones with much lower interest rates than international market.”

Meanwhile, An Xin, the Joint Managing Director of the China Harbour Engineering Company said that CHEC was willing to cooperate with the Criminal Investigations Department in their investigations into the story.

“The speculation by an international media that CHEC funded former President’s 2015 Presidential Election campaign is completely inconsistent with the facts,” she said.

“The construction of the Hambantota Port was an important national task based on mutual agreement between the two countries and implemented under a transparent model. CHEC has never been involved in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.”

An added that CHEC was holding discussions on the possibility of pursuing legal action against The New York Times for publishing defamatory and damaging allegations. During an informal press briefing hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, An refuted claims that no feasibility studies had been conducted adding that two feasibility studies had been done, one of which was during Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s previous tenure.

“Developing a port in Hambantota given its location was to promote the economic development of Sri Lanka. This was the consensus among different Governments led by the main political parties,” she said. “Sri Lanka did not initially approach China to develop the Hambantota Port. It was after other countries showed lack of interest that China offered support. It is evident that China never coerced Sri Lanka to construct the Port nor did China lure Sri Lanka into any debt trap.”

Tissa Wickramasinghe of the Hambantota International Port Group added the Hambantota Port achieved 1 million TUs in the first year of operation and 2 million in the second year making it record achievement. He went on to detail future prospects of job creation at the port adding that out of the 640 employees who are presently at the port only 24 of them were expatriates.

Lou Chong speaking at the media briefing added that they were pleased to see that both the Prime Minister and President were aware of the facts pertaining to the Port. The Premier at an event last week noted that Sri Lanka had informed the Chinese that Hambantota cannot be used for military purposes.

“The Sri Lanka Navy is moving its Southern Command to Hambantota. There is no need to be frightened as security of the port will be under the control of Sri Lanka Navy,” he said.