By Easwaran Rutnam
The Sri Lanka Navy has strengthened its presence; both inside and outside the Hambantota Port, amidst speculations flagged by the US and India that the Chinese may establish a military base inside the port.
Navy Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Piyal De Silva told The Sunday Morning
that, a large Navy base bordering the port is to be expanded boosting the security of the port and seas around the port.
He further claimed that Navy presence equal to the strength of three platoons is stationed inside the Hambantota Port: “We have stationed three platoons with four officers inside the Port. In addition there is a large naval base near the port and it is going to be further developed bordering this port. We have about 250-300 navy personnel there.”
The United States and India have been concerned that the Chinese may establish a clandestine military base inside the Hambantota Port.
The US has in recent times noted its concerns on the port, at the highest levels.
US Vice President Mike Pence recently warned that the Hambantota Port may soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy.
Secrecy surrounding the operations inside the port, also led to rise in speculation.
Local and foreign journalists are not permitted access to the port but foreign delegations, including Japanese and British officials were invited to the port recently.
The Chinese Embassy in Colombo consistently denied reports of a hidden agenda linked to the Hambantota Port deal.
Rear Admiral Piyal De Silva also insists the port is only a commercial project, and all procedures which need to be followed by any international commercial port are in place for the Hambantota port.
He said that the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code is implemented by the Navy at the Hambantota Port. The ISPS code mainly looks after the security aspects of the ship, seafarers, ports and port workers, to ensure preventive measures can be taken if a security threat is determined.
The main aim of International Code for the Security of Ships and of Port Facilities is:
· To monitor the activity of people and cargo operation
· To detect the different security threats on board vessel and in port and implement measure as per the situation
· To provide a security level to the ship and derive various duties and functions at the different security level
· To establish the respective roles and responsibilities of the contracting governments, agencies, local administrations and the shipping and port industries
· To build and implement roles and responsibilities for port state officers and on-board officers to tackle maritime security threat at the international level
· To collect data from all over the maritime industry concerning security threats and implementing ways to tackle the same
· To ensure the exchange of collected security-related information data with worldwide port and ship owners network
· To provide a methodology for security assessments so as to have in place plans and procedures to react to changing security levels and to find the shortcomings in the ship security and port security plan and measure to improve them
Rear Admiral De Silva said that the general security of the Hambantota port comes under the port management but the Navy ensures the ISPS code is properly implemented inside the port.
No Chinese military base in Hambanthota
“This is done similar to other ports in the country. Under the One Belt One Road initiative a lot of people think that China is going to establish a military base there. There is no such military base there. They are only engaged in their commercial activities. The port is open for other navies as well,” he said.
However since both the US and India have raised concerns, The Sunday Morning
learns that the Navy base next to the Hambantota port will be open for US and Indian intelligence agencies to visit and monitor the port, to clear any concerns they have.
The Sunday Morning
recently reported how the US is keeping a close watch on the port through its intelligence agencies.
The US is now looking to work closely with Sri Lanka on maritime security, particularly to counter China’s hold on Sri Lanka.
The Government last year granted a 99-year lease on the Hambantota deep-sea port to Beijing, after it was unable to repay Chinese loans for the $ 1.4 billion project.
The US Department of State recently said that it will provide approximately $ 39 million in Foreign Military Financing for Sri Lanka, pending Congressional approval.
Bay of Bengal Initiative by US
A US Embassy spokesperson told The Sunday Morning
that Congress approved the additional Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funds at the end of September.
The US Embassy in Colombo must now work with the Government of Sri Lanka to provide the desired equipment and training.
The $ 39 million in FMF will be used to enhance Sri Lanka’s maritime domain awareness capabilities, with a focus on its ability to detect and respond to illicit activity and foreign intrusion in its territorial waters.
The US and Sri Lankan militaries regularly cooperate on joint exercises and training that enhance maritime security and disaster preparedness in the Indo-Pacific.
US Department of State Spokesperson Heather Nauert had said earlier that the funding represents a significant investment in the US security relationships with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Pacific islands, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and others.
“The investment focuses on four key areas that are critical to ensuring a free, open, and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. This includes maritime security, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response, also peacekeeping capabilities and countering transnational crime. As part of the maritime security theme, we launched the Bay of Bengal Initiative to help enhance the capacity of civilian and military maritime actors in this vital region, which is home to important sea lanes linking the Indian Ocean to East Asia.”
Meanwhile, in order to pacify India, the Government is in talks with India to give a stake in the Mattala airport.
Navies from China, India, US to meet in Colombo
The navies from China, India and the US are to meet in Colombo this week at a conference organised by the Sri Lanka Navy.
Navy Chief of staff, Rear Admiral Piyal De Silva said that over 140 participants from 50 countries are scheduled to attend the conference.
He said that the conference will be used to discuss common issues pertinent to the navies around the world.
Among the countries which have confirmed participation are China, the US, India, UK, Japan and the Maldives.
Rear Admiral Piyal De Silva said that the conference will give Sri Lanka an opportunity to share its views and experience on maritime security and also establish links with the navies from other countries.
He noted that some of the “big players” in the Indian Ocean need Sri Lanka’s assistance to face maritime security threats and similarly Sri Lanka needs the assistance of other countries.
Rear Admiral Piyal De Silva said collaborating with other navies has helped Sri Lanka combat human smuggling, heroin smuggling and to also carry out rescue operations are sea.