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Lanka, Japan to boost maritime defence cooperation

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COLOMBO (PTI): Japan has pledged to strengthen its maritime defence cooperation with Sri Lanka and donated two coast guard patrol vessel costing over USD 11 million, a move by Tokyo to counter China's grip over the strategic Indian Ocean island.

The announcement was made on Tuesday following a meeting between Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and visiting Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onedera.

"Sri Lanka and Japan are looking for closer maritime defence cooperation," a statement from President Sirisena's office said.

Onedera, who is the first Japanese defence minister to visit Sri Lanka, will also visit the Hambantota port which Colombo was forced to lease to a Chinese state-owned company for 99 years in December 2017 after it failed to service loans from Beijing to build the USD 1.1 billion facility.

Hambantota, about 230-km south of Colombo, is situated on the world's busiest east-west shipping route and gives China a foothold in a region which was said to be long dominated by India.

The Japanese minister will also visit Trincomalee, a natural harbour that was the target of Japan's bombing during World War II.

In the recent years, China has edged out Japan as a key fund provider of ports and other projects in the island. Sri Lanka has become a key link in its ambitious "Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)".

Western nations, alongside India and Japan, have also expressed concerns over China's extensive interests in Sri Lanka.

Sirisena also thanked Onodera for donating two coast guard patrol craft costing over USD 11 million, the statement said.

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