The proposed shifting of Sri Lanka’s Southern Naval Area from Galle to the strategic port of Hambantota, run by the Chinese, is being monitored by India, but the government is not perturbed by Colombo’s June 30 announcement.
Enhanced Sri Lankan naval presence in Hambantota, “if it happened”, would be a “positive for India” as it would facilitate regular port calls by vessels from India, the United States, Japan and even Australia, two persons in the defence establishment said on condition of anonymity.
“This will enable better monitoring of the port than is currently happening. This would have some deterrent effect on Chinese activity as also put greater pressure on Sri Lanka for ensuring non-military use compliance,” said one of the persons cited above.
According to their assessment, the shifting of the Southern Naval Area — one of Sri Lanka’s seven naval commands — is not likely to happen in the near future despite the announcements.
“There is no infrastructure at Hambantota to support the move. No ship/craft repair facilities, no slipways or accommodation. The Sri Lankan navy does not even have its own jetty,” said the second official.
He added that the area allocated for the Sri Lankan navy was outside the port premises to the east and barely enough to establish “a small naval base at best”.
The Lankan navy is likely to operate in the periphery of the port rather than get entrenched inside, he said.
China Merchants Port Holdings, handling the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease, was unlikely to part with land to facilitate the expansion of the Lankan navy in the area, this person said.
The officials cited the example of Colombo International Container Terminals Ltd (CICT) to explain how things were likely to unfold. They said Sri Lankan Navy was spread evenly throughout the Colombo port, but hardly had any presence in the CICT area. “While it is not clear that Sri Lankan Navy is shifting its Southern Naval Area to Hambantota, it is understandable that they would like to ensure their coastal and waterfront security along their south-eastern waters and port,” said strategic affairs expert Sudarshan Shrikhande, a former rear admiral.
“China’s inroads into the Indian Ocean Region need careful watching, but as such, the Lankan navy’s move to have a presence in Hambantota should not be seen negatively in India,” Shrikhande added.
India could also benefit from the Lankan navy’s shifting to Hambantota’s periphery as the latter will then be able to carry out more sustained deployment in the sector south-east of the island.
“If we are able to tap into the situational awareness that the Sri Lankan navy would have, it would boost our ability to continually monitor this area,” said a government official who did not want to be named.