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US Defence Secretary warned over Hambantota Port

US Defence Secretary James Mattis has been warned over the possible threat the Hambantota Port can pose if it is used by China as a Navy base.

A group of US Senators in a letter to US Defence Secretary James Mattis have stated that in China’s String of Pearls strategy for the Indo-Pacific, Gwadar and Hambantota are important footholds that if converted into naval bases will enable the PLA Navy to maintain a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean.

Last year, the Sri Lankan government, after being unable to repay over US$ 1 billion of Chinese debt for construction of the Hambantota Port, granted a Chinese state company a 99-year lease on the facility.

The US Senators had also addressed the letter to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin and expressed concern over bailout requests made by countries suffering in China’s debt trap citing Sri Lanka as an example.

David Perdue, Patrick Leahy and 14 other US senators have written to Pompeo and Mnuchin raising their concerns.

“This financial crisis illustrates the dangers of China’s debt-trap diplomacy and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to developing countries, as well as the national security threat they pose to the United States,” the senators have reportedly said in their letter.

The Centre for Global Development has estimated that of the 68 countries currently hosting BRI-funded projects, 23 countries are at risk of debt distress, and in eight of those countries, future BRI-related financing raises serious concerns about sovereign debt sustainability.

“It is also found that Chinese behaviour as a creditor has not been subject to the disciplines and standards that other major sovereigns and other multilateral creditors have adopted collectively, and in the process, debt levels and dependence on China are rising,” the senators have noted by citing an example of Sri Lanka, which was promised a bailout of US$ 1.5 billion by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2016.