Ahead of his visit to India, the newly elected Sri Lanka President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has allowed a Russian Navy ship to visit the Hambantota port. This move comes as a matter of huge relief for India, which has been concerned about the use of this strategically located port by the Chinese Navy, something that is opposed to India’s interests in the Indian Ocean Region. Ahead of his visit to India on November 29, Gotabaya has also said, “We will work with India as a friendly country and won’t do anything that will harm India’s interests.”
India has been desirous of Russia expanding its presence in the region to make it more inclusive. Russia has been a long-standing ally and close defence partner of India. Therefore, Colombo’s move to allow Russian Navy ship to visit the strategically located port maybe meant to address India’s worries with respect to the Hambantota port.
The Hambantota port was a major reason of deterioration behind Indo-Sri Lanka relations. The port has become a living example of the Dragon’s “debt-trap” diplomacy. Financed by the Chinese despite adverse feasibility reports and refusal by India for such a project, the port turned out to be a miserable failure. While tens of thousands of ships pass through the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the Hambantota port drew only 34 ships in 2012. The Rajapaksa regime was ousted in 2015 but the new government struggled to discharge the debts taken by the Rajapaksa regime.
Finally, unable to pay off the debt, Sri Lanka had to hand over the port and a mammoth 15,000 acres of land around it to the Chinese on a 99-year lease. This was strategically crucial for China as it gained foothold just a few hundred miles off the shores of India. Later, India acquired the loss-making Hambantota airport.
It was primarily due to the miserable Hambantota port project that the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime came to be seen as pro-Beijing which ultimately led to the souring of Colombo’s relations with New Delhi. This was also the reason why Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in the recent Presidency polls in Sri Lanka was being seen as a matter of concern for Indo-Sri Lankan relations by many. His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa recently sworn in as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, had allowed Chinese submarines to dock at the port in 2014, twice, raising alarms in New Delhi. By allowing the Russian Navy ship to visit the Hambantota project, the Rajapaksa regime has sent a soft signal about how it is not opposed to India’s interests.