'Our neighbouring country Sri Lanka is facing trouble after building a deep sea port with Chinese loans'
The government has decided to drop the plan of building a deep sea port in Sonadia, Cox’s Bazar and fast track the proposed deep sea port in Matarbari.
Official sources confirmed to Dhaka Tribune on Wednesday that the move came after giving consideration to the vulnerability of the ecosystem of Sonadia island, which was declared an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) back in 1999. But sources also hinted that some geopolitical considerations also came into play.
At the 5th meeting of the Fast Track Project Monitoring Committee, held at the Prime Minister’s Office on January 19, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that there would be no deep sea port in Sonadia as such construction would damage the ecological balance of the area, a meeting source told this correspondent.
It was expected that China would provide funds to build Sonadia deep sea port and a feasibility study was carried out to this end back in 2009. But eventually no Sino-Bangla deal was struck all these years. The US, China and India, all global and regional big economies, have their diverse perspectives centring on the Bay of Bengal zone.
Seeking anonymity, a government policymaker told Dhaka Tribune: “We do not want to get involved in regional politics, which may affect our country’s development. Besides, Bangladesh is surrounded by some big foreign deep sea ports, so we do not need to build a shipping terminal here. At the same time, Japan is developing the Matarbari area for an LNG terminal. We can easily develop Matarbari as a deep sea port. That’s why the government changed the decision of constructing a deep sea port in Sonadia.”
“Our neighbouring country Sri Lanka is facing trouble after building a deep sea port with Chinese loans. Now China (China Merchants Ports Holding Company having 70 percent leasing stake) has a large stake at this port. So we were cautious about taking Chinese credit for Sonadia,” explained the policymaker.
On January 18, China and Myanmar signed 33 memoranda of understanding (MoUs), agreements, protocols and exchange letters, including concession agreements and shareholders’ agreement, regarding the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone Deep Sea Port Project in Myanmar.
During a two-day visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping sealed the deep sea port deal in Kyaukpyu area, which is located in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State that borders Bangladesh to the north and the Bay of Bengal to the west.
Experts note that Bangladesh’s dropping of the Sonadia port project encouraged Beijing to look to building an alternative deep-sea port in Myanmar for this region, while India is constructing a road network through its seven-sister region to access the deep-sea port in Myanmar.
Dr Amena Mohsin, who teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka, told Dhaka Tribune: “I think Bangladesh is now doing global economic diplomacy. Recent trends show that the country wishes to move forward from its old diplomatic tactics. Previously, Bangladesh used to practice the same pattern of pro-India or pro-China diplomacy but now its strategies are changing.”
“China didn’t stand beside Bangladesh in resolving the Rohingya crisis. Rather, China always lent support to Myanmar on the issue. I think this Chinese strategy also forced Bangladesh to think otherwise,” elaborated Dr Amena Mohsin.
Matarbari port project gaining pace
Two days after the decision to drop the Sonadia deep sea port project, the Chief Representative of the Bangladesh Office of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Hitoshi Hitara, met State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury at the latter’s secretariat office on January 21.
A press release issued by the shipping ministry states, “Matarbari port is a highest priority project of the government. We are going to place this project before the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) meeting soon, Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury told Hitoshi Hirata.”
Talking to Dhaka Tribune, Khalid Mahymud Chowdhury said, “Usually if a sea port is of over14-meter depth, it is considered a deep sea port. The Matarbari port is going to be 19 meters deep. In a sense we can use it as a deep sea port.”
Officials of the shipping ministry said the primary cost of Matarbari port development is estimated to be Tk.17,777.16 crore. JICA and Chittagong Port Authority (CPA) will construct it jointly.
Of the amount, JICA will provide Tk 12,892.76 crore, the Bangladesh government Tk 2,671.15 crore and the CPA Tk 2,213.94 crore.
The timeframe of this project is from 2020 to 2024.
According to the plan, two jetties having a capacity of handling 8,000 TUEs (twenty-foot equivalent units) would be readied at Matarbari. The jetties will make possible the handling of more than three times the 2,500 TUEs daily now being handled at Chittagong Port.
How the business hub will look
The JICA team also shared a drawing, ‘Future image of Moheshkhali-Matarbari area,’ at Tuesday’s meeting at the shipping ministry. Dhaka Tribune has collected a copy of that image.
A graphic presentation of the proposed project gives a beautiful look of the project site and its adjoining areas, having a 28km four-lane road with 17 bridges. The total length of the bridges is estimated to be nearly 7km.
Additionally, a number of high-rises will be constructed there, to facilitate all kinds of works and accommodation. Once completed, the project is expected to draw a number of tourists to the once remote island.
Member (Administration and Planning) of Chittagong Port Authority, Md Zadar Alam, told this correspondent that the port would be connected to the national highway from Chokoria to Cox’s Bazar.
“There will be two jetties: one is a 300-meter multipurpose jetty and the other is a 460-meter container jetty,” he added.