Sri Lanka recently revealed it ceded physical control of its Hambantota Port to China in 2017 not just on a 99-year lease, as previously reported, but also with a provision to extend the lease for an additional 99 years.
“[T]he previous government made a mistake on the Hambantota port deal when they canceled the lease and gave it on a longer period of 99 years plus another 99 years once the first term ends,” Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told the Sri Lankan newspaper Ceylon Today on February 20.
“There is a provision for a further 99-year extension of the lease,” Gunawardena added.
Ceylon Today asked Gunawardena if the clause is mentioned in the Belt and Road Initiative “Memorandum of Understanding” (MoU) agreement signed by Sri Lanka and China to initiate their joint infrastructure projects. Beijing has launched BRI projects worldwide as a means of increasing China’s global influence in recent years.
“Yes,” Gunawardena answered. “It says the 99-year lease can extend for a further period. Which means it can go on for any number of years after 99 years or for another 99 years.”
The Chinese foreign ministry denied China’s lease on Hambantota Port extends to nearly 200 years when asked about the Ceylon Today article at a regular press conference on February 24.
“The relevant report runs counter to facts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told the Press Trust of India.
“The concession agreement relating to the Hambantota Port is a mutually beneficial one signed by China and Sri Lanka in an equal-footed and voluntary spirit through friendly consultations,” Wang said.
A Chinese state-owned firm seized control of Hambantota Port in late 2017 on a 99-year lease after the Sri Lankan government defaulted on its previous BRI loans from China to develop the port. Observers viewed Sri Lanka’s handover of a strategic Indian Ocean port to China as a serious threat to the island nation’s sovereignty.
The Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), General Daya Ratnayake, told Ceylon Today on February 6 that Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was “revisiting” the Hambantota port deal.
“We are revisiting the proposal even now. It was unfortunate and such a deal on Hambantota Port shouldn’t have been done. But the review process is going on,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s president recently negotiated with Chinese government officials so they would allow the island’s military to relocate a Sri Lankan naval base from the Chinese-controlled section of the port, Ratnayake revealed.
“The Navy Base, according to the agreement, was on the Chinese leased land. The President spoke to the Chinese and took the base to the Sri Lankan side,” Ratnayake said. “Hereafter, the Sri Lanka Navy will take control of the entire maritime area, under the supervision of the Sri Lanka Government.”
“Our security is now taken back for Sri Lanka in Hambantota Port,” the SLPA Chairman affirmed.