4:53 pm - Saturday May 24, 0588

Deep-sea port deal: Govt prefers China-led consortium  

At least five local and regional factors played a decisive role why Bangladesh changed its stand on signing the Sonadia deep-sea port agreement at the last minute before prime minister Sheikh Hasina set off for China last week.

As a number of countries, including United Arab Emirate, India and Germany were vying to secure the multi-billion dollar contract for the deep-sea port, Dhaka opted for a consortium financing model led by China to accommodate others to construct the mega infrastructure, sources involved in the process said.

china BDHasina’s scheduled visit to the UAE in August held back the proposed deal with China as the government is unwilling to see her forthcoming tour of the Gulf state become futile or a low profile one, a senior official at the foreign ministry said, referring to one of the major factors behind the sudden backtracking on the deep-sea port position.

UAE’s state-controlled DP has long been showing an interest in the much-talked about port construction.

‘It was a last minute change to strike a balance between the interested countries and to reap maximum benefit from the Chinese financing modalities,’ a secretary of the government, who accompanied Hasina to China, told New Age.

Senior officials, who accompanied Hasina and took part in the negotiations with their Chinese counterparts on the proposed port, were informed of the latest position of the government immediately after they had boarded the plane on June 6 for a six-day visit to China. The prime minister returned home ending the tour on Wednesday.

They said an inter-ministerial meeting on June 2 at the foreign ministry decided to strike a deal with China on the deep sea port during Hasina’s tour after the Prime Minister’s Office had given the green light. Foreign secretary Shahidul Haque presided over the meeting.

The proposed deal based on a draft memorandum of understanding from China on the particular issue was supposed to be signed between the two countries with a few changes, a top official at the foreign ministry said.

Before striking a major contract with the Asian economic giant that has rivalries with India,  the government wants to know the attitude of India’s newly installed BJP government towards Dhaka’s move, another official familiar with the latest development said.

‘We, however, never mentioned our limitations on regional perspectives at the negotiation,’ another official said.

He said they had highlighted local factors, such as concessional loans, operation modalities and supervisory aspects relating to construction of the port.

According to officials concerned, Dhaka wanted that design and construction should be carried out by the lead financing entities, while operations should be left to Bangladesh authorities.

‘Besides, we want local engineers to supervise the construction of the deep-sea port,’ a government secretary told New Age, adding Dhaka was keen to take into consideration the feasibility study on the port already conducted by Japan, along with the one to be conducted by China.

Another official said though Chinese officials were found interested in supplier’s credit system as a financing modality, they were not rigid about it.

‘Actually, we were not much interested in going deep into the negotiations, and want further discussions.’

When approached, economic relations division secretary Mohammad Mejbahuddin said the discussion to

award the contract to China would continue.

‘Negotiations with China will continue to finalise everything, including financing modalities, to construct the deep-sea port,’ Mejbahuddin told New Age on Thursday.

On the other hand, shipping secretary Syed Manzurul Islam said the negotiations with China had proceeded to a great extent on signing the deal.

‘We have a few more issues to settle before striking a deal with China on the deep-sea port,’ Manzurul told New Age.

Officials at the ministry said if a Chinese company were to be awarded the contract, Sonadia would become the fourth port to be constructed by a Chinese firm in the Bay of Bengal, deepening Beijing’s footprint on one of the important sea routes of the world.

Chinese companies have previously built ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar.

Experts said the country badly needed a deep-sea port as annual trade through its two seaports currently stands around $60 billion.

-The New Age