Sri Lanka to scale back Hambantota port deal with China

The Chinese-built port is making losses

Published - March 10, 2017 12:49 am IST - Colombo

A protest against a proposed sale of stake in the port to a Chinese company.

A protest against a proposed sale of stake in the port to a Chinese company.

Sri Lanka is to scale back a profitable but controversial deal to sell a deep-sea port to a Chinese company after widespread protests, the Ports Minister said Thursday. Arjuna Ranatunga said the government was renegotiating the sale of the debt-laden but strategically-located Hambantota port.

It had hoped to transfer an 80% stake to the China Merchants Port Holdings on a long lease, but the proposed deal met with opposition from residents in the southern town of Hambantota and some members of the ruling coalition.

“We have proposed several changes [to the original draft agreement] and we will end up with a situation which is far more favourable to the institution,” Mr. Ranatunga told reporters in Colombo, referring to the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

He did not give details, but official sources said the SLPA wanted to reduce the Chinese company’s equity holding and the lease period, and ensure overall security of the port remained in its control.

Colombo had hoped to raise about a billion dollars from the deal to repay the money China lent it to build the $1.4-billion harbour.

The port, built during the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, has become a white elephant with revenues insufficient even to pay salaries of staff.

The new government, which came to power in January 2015, has been trying to renegotiate terms of its $8-billion Chinese debt, which includes the construction costs of the Hambantota port.

"I hope we will be able to finalise an agreement within a week to 10 days," Mr. Ranatunga said.

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