Lankans weary of the Chinese
With increasing evidence of attempt at Chinese colonisation, Lankans have grown apprehensive of the dragon’s intentions, writes Arun Srivastava.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena last week sacked the outspoken justice minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe for publicly criticising the government's $1.1 billion deal with China to develop the strategic Hambantota port. His sacking was recommended by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was angry with Rajapakshe for questioning the government's July 29 decision to sell a 70-per cent stake in the port to a Chinese firm, a move that could raise security concerns for India.
The Sri Lankan government has been conscious of the fact that the Chinese firms have merely been concerned with their own interest. But they were unable to effectively counter the Chinese moves. The fact of the matter is that China's investments in the Sri Lankan ports of Colombo and Hambantota have not only plunged Sri Lanka into debt but also raised questions about the consequences on security and defence that could arise from Beijing's use of economic statecraft, including a possible renewal of the Sino-Indian rivalry.
Some Sri Lankan bureaucrats and ministers are quite sceptical of the Chinese moves. The Sino-Sri Lankan relationship was fundamentally transformed by the 2005 election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Within weeks of taking office, he approached Delhi for military aid to crush the LTTE struggle. However, with India refusing to fulfil his demands, Rajapaksa turned to the US, which also refused to comply with his request since Sri Lanka was blatantly violating human rights in the LTTE conflict. Washington, in fact, had "drastically reduced its foreign assistance package for Sri Lanka." This situation provided the right opportunity for China to fill the void in the defence realm. In 2007, Rajapaksa secured a $37 million deal for Chinese ammunition and ordnance. The ceasefire with the Tigers collapsed that year and in 2009 Rajapaksa launched a massive offensive that eliminated the LTTE, though not before claiming up to 20,000 civilian lives in the process. The anti-Chinese officials, however, blamed the US: "We have the United States to thank for pushing us closer to China."
Rajapaksa had upgraded Sri Lankan ties to a "strategic cooperative partnership" and opened Colombo's doors to a massive Chinese entry. The real prize for China, however, were the ports connecting China to its energy suppliers in the Middle East and Africa. Rajapaksa used all mechanisms to keep India away. Besides signing the first arms agreement with China in 2007, Rajapaksa inked a separate deal to lease land to a Chinese consortium at Hambantota. The importance of the Hambantota project for China could be understood from the simple fact that in 2010, Beijing lent Sri Lanka an additional $200 million to build a second international airport near Hambantota, and in 2012 offered another $810 million for the second phase of the port project. In November 2013, Chinese firms were contracted to build a $272 million railway in Sri Lanka, "the first new railway construction in Sri Lanka within a century."
Incidentally, a large section of the people including the political leadership was feeling anguished at India being kept away from the construction projects. Some politicians even today share the view that India provided space to China. They point out that even small projects which came India's way were not handled effectively by the Indian companies. A meaningful presence of India in Sri Lanka would have put China under check. Some in Sri Lanka and across the Palk Strait even began voicing concerns about Colombo's embrace of China and its growing indebtedness to Beijing. Since 2005, China had funded and constructed 70 per cent of the new infrastructure projects, overtaking Japan as Sri Lanka's largest donor. Chinese non-military aid soared from a few million dollars in 2005 to $1 billion in 2008. An additional $5 billion in aid and loans were distributed between 2009 and 2015.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Colombo in September 2014, the Chinese-funded Hambantota Port was haemorrhaging money. Colombo was paying $30 million per year in interest payments alone. "The port that was touted as a competitor for Singapore has continued to bleed the government," noted the South China Morning Post. China made its intentions clear when Chinese submarines appeared on its geopolitical doorstep. Later that month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had personally reminded Rajapaksa that Sri Lanka "was obliged to inform its neighbours about such port calls under a maritime pact." Yet the same submarine resurfaced in Colombo in November, again without prior notice to Delhi.
After Mithripala Sirisena came to power in January 2015 promising to loosen ties with China after a decade of hefty funding by Beijing under his predecessor, Modi visited the island and promised to "script a golden chapter in the history of India-Sri Lanka relations." But surprisingly, Beijing's influence continues to be on the rise again as Colombo struggles to find alternative sources of foreign capital. Some sections of the Sri Lankan policy makers and politicians feel that India clearly wants to keep Sri Lanka within its sphere of influence but is not quite responsive to the financial needs of the island. China is pushing its way into Sri Lanka, spending US$ 8 billion to build infrastructure to support its ambitious global One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. Interestingly, facing a serious challenge from China in the South China Sea, Japan has been making determined moves to see that the Indian Ocean island does not become a Chinese client state. China has supplanted it as Sri Lanka's single largest donor. During the 30-year war, China sold military hardware to the Sri Lankan armed forces, filling the gap created by the Western powers, which had refused to sell military equipment to Sri Lanka citing human rights concerns.
Violent protests broke out in January after the government announced a deal with China to develop the port and build a massive industrial zone. Officials agreed to lease 80 per cent of Hambantota harbour to China Merchants Port Holdings for 99 years. "It's been 69 years since we got our freedom, we don't want to be under any other country," said DV Chanaka, a Parliament member. He said, "People fear it will lead to Chinese colonisation." Chinese companies are building luxury apartments with views of the water and constructing an entire business district on land reclaimed from the sea.
The critics of China's involvement in such projects pointed out that when China acquires an ability to have control over such assets in Sri Lanka for long periods, it results in the erosion of Sri Lanka's sovereignty. Moreover, China is viewed as a rival to India. It cannot be said that the Sri Lankan government was not aware of the fact that China had designed a plan for constructing sea ports in strategically important locations in the coastal states of the Indian Ocean. For reaching the super power status, China has to use its diplomacy for expanding its spheres of influence for finding markets, resources and assets for investments in other countries, not only in the region but also in other parts of the world.
India believes that there is an obligation for neighbouring states to consult India not only in the matter of taking foreign policy decisions but also regarding internal matters when they constitute the source of a threat to India's security. For example, a civil war or political instability in a neighbouring state can be regarded as a potential threat to India's security.
Interestingly, Sri Lanka's national debt stands at around $64 billion, or 76 per cent of its gross domestic product, one of the highest among emerging economies. It owes China over $8 billion. For now, Hambantota remains a sleepy outpost. Four years after the port and airport were completed, there is one flight a day and barely five to six ships docking each week. The highway leading to the town is largely deserted, a new conference hall is unused and even a large cricket stadium built by the Chinese is used mainly for wedding receptions.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)