July 2, 2018 / 4:48 PM / 4 months ago

Sri Lanka to shift naval base to China-controlled port city

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka is shifting a naval base to a port built and controlled by China, it said on Monday, a move that will strengthen security at a harbour that foreign powers fear China could use for military purposes.

FILE PHOTO: Sri Lanka's navy fires a gun salute during the Sri Lanka's 70th Independence day celebrations in Colombo, Sri Lanka February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The base currently in the tourist district of Galle will be moved 125 km (80 miles) east along Sri Lanka’s southern coast to Hambantota, nearer a main shipping route between Asia and Europe.

The $1.5 billion deepwater port is likely to play a major role in China’s “Belt and Road” initiative and is under a 99-year lease to China Merchants Port Holdings at a cost of $1.12 billion.

Government and diplomatic sources have told Reuters that the United States, India and Japan have raised concerns that China might use the port as a naval base.

FILE PHOTO: A Navy officer looks at the heroes' name board of a war memorial, during a commemoration ceremony to mark the 9th anniversary of the fallen soldiers during the final stage of war between Tamil Tigers and government army, in Colombo, Sri Lanka May 19, 2018. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The Sri Lankan government and Chinese embassy in Colombo have denied that and the agreement for the port deal included a clause that it cannot be used for military purposes.

“Sri Lanka has already informed China that Hambantota port cannot be used for military purposes,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office said in a statement.

“Since the security of the port will be under the control of Sri Lanka navy, there is no need to fear,” the statement said.

A naval unit has already been established in Hambantota and construction work for the base is under way, navy spokesman Dinesh Bandara said.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the Hambantota port project was to help Sri Lanka achieve its aim of becoming a logistics hub in the Indian Ocean, which was good for the country’s economic development and the region as a whole.

Reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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