COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s government approved a long-delayed agreement to sell a 70 percent stake in a $1.2 billion Chinese-built port to China on Tuesday, months after signing an initial framework agreement which drew public criticism and protests.
Minister of Ports and Shipping Mahinda Samarasinghe said the Cabinet approved the agreement, which is to be signed by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and the state-run China Merchants Port Holding Co. over the weekend.
He said the Chinese company will invest $1.12 billion in the port, which is close to busy east-west shipping lanes. Under the original framework agreement, an 80 percent stake would have been sold to China.
According to the agreement, two local companies whose shares will be split between the Chinese enterprise and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority will be set up to handle the port’s operation, security and services. The Chinese company will be responsible for commercial operations while the Sri Lanka Ports Authority will handle security. The lease period is 99 years.
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In January, hundreds of farmers and opposition supporters protested the government’s plan to lease the port, saying the proposed partnership was akin to a sellout of the country. The port, built with a Chinese loan during the administration of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is seen as a white elephant because it has failed to become financially viable since it began operations in 2011.
Sri Lanka’s government criticized the project before being elected in 2015 but later sought help from China to make it viable.
The port is seen as a part of Beijing’s so-called string-of-pearls plan for a line of ports stretching from its waters to the Persian Gulf.
Rajapaksa relied heavily on China for infrastructure projects. During his administration, China provided loans for an airport, sea port, highways and power plants, and became the largest investor in Sri Lanka.
China’s influence in Sri Lanka makes neighboring India anxious because it considers the Indian Ocean region to be its strategic backyard.
The current government led by President Maithripala Sirisena has been trying to balance both Asian giants since coming to power.