India’s plans to invest in a strategic port in Sri Lanka as a counterbalance to China’s massive infrastructure investments in the Indian Ocean island country got a push Wednesday as Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi.
China’s development of the key Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which is a gateway to crucial shipping lanes, has raised concerns in New Delhi about Beijing’s widening naval influence in its neighborhood.
In New Delhi, India and Sri Lanka signed a memorandum of understanding on economic cooperation and expressed commitment to its implementation. Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Gopal Baglay, tweeted that it signaled “deepening economic collaboration.”
The specific deal to develop the World War II oil storage facility in the eastern port of Trincomalee, South Asia’s deepest natural harbor, is expected to be signed next month when Modi visits Colombo.
Although India’s planned investment in energy infrastructure in Trincomalee will be far more modest compared to Beijing’s ambitious Hambantota project, analysts say it will enable New Delhi to secure a foothold and ensure that no other country uses the harbor for military purposes.
While Colombo has assured India that Hambantota will be used only for commercial activity, its potential use as a naval base worries New Delhi. Those worries have intensified since a Chinese submarine docked briefly in Colombo port in 2014.
India has long fretted about China’s expanding foothold in the Indian Ocean region through infrastructure projects in countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“We find that India is now getting more and more strategically encircled by economic infrastructure projects,” according to Vijay Sakhuja, Director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi.
Besides Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, he points to China’s building of Gwadar port in Pakistan. Warning that these projects, built to facilitate trade, also have a strategic element, he says, “We should not be surprised by frequent PLA [People’s Liberation Army] navy presence in the Indian Ocean, particularly in Gwadar, which will cause some discomfort to the naval planners in New Delhi.”
For Sri Lanka, India’s planned investment in the energy project in Trincomalee will help counterbalance the massive infrastructure deals signed with China by the former government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had leaned heavily toward Beijing.
“The spin off of that [project] is balancing what is perceived as predominant Chinese influence as far as the economy is concerned,” said Paikiasothy Saravanumuttu at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.
The new government is trying to move away from the heavy dependance on Beijing for foreign investment. During a recent visit to Tokyo, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe sought Japanese investment for the Colombo and Trincomalee ports.