Sri Lankan authority stoutly defended Japanese interest in maritime matters with the focus on Hambantota port. The minister of the subject didn’t find fault with Onodera for an unanticipated declaration that Hambantota should be free of military activity.
Those opposed to Sri Lanka’s relationship with China had conveniently forgotten that China invested in Hanbantota at a time the Rajapaksa government was certainly not sure whether it could sustain the combined security forces offensive until the war could be brought to a successful conclusion. The Chinese threw its weight behind the Hambantota project though Western powers and India objected. Whether Western powers like it or not, obviously, Sri Lanka figures in overall Chinese strategy.
Thanks to Wiki leaks, we are aware of the discussion in New Delhi, on the Hambantota port, even before the construction of the inland port got underway, in January 2008. Sri Lanka and China inaugurated the port’s first stage in Nov 2010.
The following is the relevant section of the US diplomatic cable that dealt with the April 26, 2007, meeting the New Delhi–based US diplomat had with the then Joint Secretary, at the External Affairs Ministry Mohan Kumar. Having functioned as the Desk Officer in charge of the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (1990-1992), Kumar received the appointment as Deputy High Commissioner, in Colombo, in late 2001. Kumar had taken up the Hambantota port issue with the US official, in his capacity as head of the division that handled relations with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Kumar has discussed stepped up Indian Navy patrols in the waters between India and Sri Lanka and expressed concern over Chinese involvement in the Hambantota port project. Kumar has also bitterly complained about Chinese taking advantage of the situation in Burma, at the expense of India.
The following is the section on the Hambantota port: “The situation in Sri Lanka is “bad, really bad – beyond bleak” in Kumar’s judgment. Characterizing the government and the LTTE as two sets of people with scant regard for the international community, Kumar was skeptical that political progress could be achieved anytime soon. He confirmed reports that the Indian Navy had stepped up patrols in the Palk Strait, and said that India and Sri Lanka were doing coordinated patrolling to prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Tamil Nadu coast. Kumar said it would be helpful to get the American assessment of the port being built in Hambantota, which he estimated China was willing to spend $500 million to help develop. He noted that China had increased its influence with President Rajapaksa, opining that Rajapaksa had a “soft spot” for China following his visit to Beijing on March 9.”
The US worked overtime to oust the Rajapaksas to break Sri Lanka’s relationship with China. Those who resented growing Chinese influence here appreciated the US initiative. The US project went awry, in 2010, with their choice, retired General Sarath Fonseka suffering a heavy defeat at the presidential poll. Having failed to oust Rajapaksa, in spite of ensuring that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) support to Fonseka, Western powers and their allies, including India, succeeded at the January 2015 presidential poll. However, they appeared to have failed to thwart major Chinese projects here.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has been compelled to defend and praise Chinese projects after having flayed China in the run up to the presidential and general elections, in January and August, 2015, respectively.
Interestingly, the Chinese made an abortive bid to win over former President Rajapaksa’s support for its Hambantota project. Although Rajapaksa Accompanied by former External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris visited Beijing, where they discussed the impending agreement, they failed to reach consensus with Rajapaksa declaring that he would extend his support only if China and yahapalana government followed the original agreement on Hambantota. India repeatedly pressed Sri Lanka to halt the Chinese projects.
After the change of government, wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa revealed how Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval pressed him to halt the major Chinese projects here. India wanted the USD 1.4 bn Chinese flagship project – Colombo Port City halted. India also demanded that Sri Lanka take over Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). CMPH holds 85% of the partnership whilst the balance 15% is being held by SLPA. India wanted all major Chinese-funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told the writer that Doval once told him: “Sri Lanka is a small country, you don’t need such development projects.”