20 October, 2021

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A Chinese Port City In Colombo

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

While to other countries, the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas, to India it is the vital sea. Her life lines are concentrated in that area. Her future is dependent on the freedom of that water surface. No industrial development, no commercial growth, no stable political structure is possible for her unless the Indian Ocean is free and her own shores fully protected. The Indian Ocean must therefore remain truly Indian. ~ (K. M. Panikkar, India and the Indian Ocean, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1945, p. 84). 

The Indian Ocean is once again at the centre of major geopolitical competition. China’s growing footprint and influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has made the contest for power and control in the region between China and the US and its partner has been significant. … India has long been wary of power-plays in the Indian Ocean, but finds itself with few options today but to participate in securing a free and open Indo-Pacific. (Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Countering Chinese assertiveness: India’s changing posture in the Indian Ocean”, 20/04/2021.

Between what Kaplan asserted in 1945 and Rajagopalan’s observation in 2021 over three quarters of a century has lapsed, and within that period, the Indian Ocean (IO) has changed its geopolitical stature from Indian to Indo-Pacific. The Port City of Colombo, which is for all intents and purposes is emerging as a Chinese Port City, is part of the changes taking place in IO.  China is at the centre of these changes.

IO carries today, two-thirds of world’s oil shipment, one-third of its bulk cargo and one-half of the container traffic. IO also touches the borders of 40 nation states with 40 percent of world’s population, stretching from Australia, to Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and to the eastern seaboard of Africa. Given the enormity and significance of this IO traffic to the world, India cannot even dream of monopolizing that oceanic artery without being challenged. Yet, India, like China, is a rising regional power and therefore concerned over China’s intensions to increase her naval strength in IO.

After 1976, when China adopted a purposely designed capitalist economic model without relinquishing the communist political infrastructure, the country’s master plan was to achieve global domination, both economically as well as in military terms. One of China’s immediate steps to implement that plan was to safeguard the country’s sea lines of communication (SLOC). According to UNCTAD, nearly 60 percent of the total value of China’s trade passes through the South China Sea and IO. Thus, like Persian Gulf in the Middle East, IO in Asia is the arterial seaway which China needed to protect and control. In other words, China decided to replace the old land-based Silk Road by a new sea based One Belt Road. What came to be known as the string of pearl strategy of China was dictated by that need.

Sri Lanka’s civil war provided a golden opportunity for China to add one more pearl to that string. It was a war won virtually by China for Sri Lanka. The Independent (23 October 2011), summarized how it happened in the following words: “When the US ended direct military aid in 2007 over Sri Lanka’s deteriorating rights record, China leapt into the breach, increasing aid to nearly $1bn … to become the island’s biggest donor, giving tens of millions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated weapons, and making free gift of six F7 fighter jets to the Sri Lankan air force. China encouraged its ally Pakistan to sell more arms and to train pilots to fly the new planes. And, crucially, China prevented the UN Security Council from putting Sri Lanka on its agenda.”

With that victory and the then President Rajapaksa’s gratitude to China, its penetration into the island to gain a permanent foothold was only a matter of time. After that, the Hambantota project, initiated by the Rajapaksa Presidency, and to which no other country except China was willing to finance, drove the island further into China’s arms, just as US’ reluctance to support Nasser’s Aswan Dam in 1950s pushed Egypt into the Soviet camp.  It appears from revelations by one of the Rajapaksas that even the Sinharaja reservoir project was planned to be constructed with Chinese engineering at that time (See, Tisaranee Gunasekera, “Birth Pangs of the Rajapaksa Satrapy”, Colombo Telegraph, 18 April 2021). It is still remaining unaccomplished because of UNESCO’s concerns over Sri Lanka’s natural heritage. The Mattala Air Port, another of Rajapaksa’s white elephants, deepened China’s involvement further.

The change of government in 2015 and Yahapalana regime’s internal squabbles and ineffectual governance, although slowed down China’s involvement, yet, the new regime solidified China’s foothold by leasing to her the Hambantota harbour for 99 years.

The return of Rajapaksas in 1919/20 made Sri Lanka’s Sinification unstoppable.  When the government, in a move to counterbalance China’s weight decided to offer India and Japan the development and operation of the East Container Port Terminal, there were massive protests by trade unions and Buddhist monks, apparently instigated by China. (There were rumours that China even paid the protestors).  Sri Lanka’s historic antipathy towards India was also a factor that was exploited to provoke the melee. Eventually, that offer was withdrawn, and as compromise, President NGR offered India and Japan the West Container Terminal. Whether India accepted that offer is not clear yet.

The plan to open a university of technology in Hambantota with China’s help is another mile post along the road towards Sinification. The Colombo Port City (CPC) project built at India’s doorstep by the China Harbour Engineering Corporation is the latest venture to strengthen China’s Maritime Silk Road, and particularly its China-Pakistan-Sri Lanka Economic Corridor. The Rajapaksa regime claims that it is going to be a mega investment zone under special jurisdiction and would be the panacea for all the financial troubles facing the nation. On the contrary, economists and financial experts, both local and foreign fear that CPC would become a mega tax haven and money laundering magnet, and most of its benefits would go to China rather than Sri Lanka. Colombo Telegraph (22 April 2021) reported that the President’s Counsel let the cat out of the bag when he addressed the Supreme Court and argued that there was nothing wrong in President NGR allowing China to govern the CPC.

Even when Covid-19 hit the economy last year the Central Bank was encouraging the wealthy with foreign currency holdings to bring the funds back to the country without questions being asked.  Illicit money may now flow legally through CPC. The Colombo Port City Economic Commission (CPCEC) to be appointed by the President will not be answerable to the Parliament, which means CPC would virtually remain a state within a state and as a Chinese Port City in Colombo. Several petitions filed against the CPC and CPCEC are pending judgement from the Supreme Court. But with a history of political interference in the judiciary, one cannot have too much confidence in the verdict of the judges. It is obvious that China did not invest all that money in building CPC to enable someone else to benefit, let alone Sri Lanka. 

What has happened since the end of the civil war, particularly under the rule of the Rajapaksa dynasty, can be described as a gradual Sinification of Sri Lanka, not in its cultural sense but in its economic, diplomatic and strategic sense. If that trend continues the country would inevitably become another client state of China like Myanmar. The country has tilted too far towards China and has sunk deeply into China’s geopolitical vortex. Recently, NGR announced that he would renegotiate with China about the Hambantota lease. China’s response was to foot drag the release of $500 million loan promised to the government. China is also aware that the regime is losing its popularity and there is information that Chinese diplomats are secretly in contact with the opposition. However, just a change of regime at the next general elections without a wholesale transformation of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic cadre and foreign policy makers would not be sufficient to bring about a reversal in Sinification. It was the country’s inexperienced and politically appointed diplomats and the government’s muddled foreign policy, that caused the recent setback in Geneva. Small nations like Sri Lanka have no alternative but to remain non-aligned to advance their interests amidst rivalry among big powers.

IO is now emerging as the hot spot for maritime power struggle. The contestants are not only India and China, but also US and its European and Pacific allies, including Japan and Australia. The Rajapaksa regime with its one-way route to China has obviously put off India and its Western allies. How these countries would react when CPC with its CPCC comes into operation will be interesting to watch. China will not surrender so easily what it has gained already in Sri Lanka. China’s Minister of Defence is expected to arrive soon in Colombo and NGR is also expected to visit Peking. One would hope some wisdom to prevail in forthcoming negotiations to prevent Sri Lanka becoming China’s satellite.       

*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia

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Latest comments

  • 7
    3

    Ameer Ali,
    A well constructed article that brings out your ability as an analyst. It was a relief to see you leaving Muslims out of your essay.
    .
    If India’s task is tougher today, it is all India’s fault. I hope that India is up and awake.
    .
    Poor Sri Lankans. When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.

    • 2
      11

      Probably just trying to show he’s not here to whitewash the 4/21 after all.

      Give it another week or two and he’ll back with the denial and the whitewashing.

  • 4
    10

    Xenophobia is not a good thing. Most Sri Lankans would happily trade SL’s minorities for a Chinese minority.

  • 11
    1

    Ameer Ali, yesterday Australia decided to walk away from “road to glory project”. Australia cancelled belt and road agreement amidst China’s empty threats. Soon other western countries may follow suit. In that case China will return to its original debt trap project as in Lanka.

    • 3
      11

      Two can play that same game. China can cancel all pork and beef imports from Australia. When Australian meat producers suffer, who are they going to sell their products to? Bankrupt American Trump states?

    • 6
      6

      It was the State of Victoria that signed the Belt and Road Initiative with China only for the Australian Federal government to cancel it.

      Don’t try to mislead the readership with misinformation.

      • 10
        1

        R.S.Perera, how long we have heard such empty threats. After failing to make any impact China endedup stating ” sorry to see Australia not wanting to build a longterm relationship”
        Yes Aussies may have to find market for their beef , pork , diary and wine. Which is better than selling country in piecemeal.

        • 3
          6

          Chiv,

          You are probably not aware that during the US-China trade war, American farmers suffered immensely when China retaliated to American tariffs.
          Why did the Trump Administration sign a 11 Billion relief package for Farmers?

          Even the Trump administration realized it wasn’t going to be easy. In 2020, US agricultural exports fell by 142 billion compared to 2017.

          If China can inflict such damage on American farmers, then Australian farmers would be devastated.

          Don’t worry about the Wine Boycott, that’s just a pinch not a sucker punch.

          • 3
            1

            Regi, I am aware of it. But Trump also started fire in multiple fronts with EU , UK, NATO , Mexico , Canada and many others. China has manipulated trade for years and getting out will take determination, time , pain and more than anything right policies. But if at all any country can do I believe it will be U.S If they succeed in doing so then definitely it will encourage those allies doing the same. For a long period U.S was at the mercy of Oil producing countries who used the pricing for leverage. But the situation is not the as same now. Whether countries can succeed or not it is time they take measures to not be a hostage ( trade ) . Selling the country in piecemeal is never an option. China was interested not just in infrastructure projects but to take over mines / resources which needed funding.

          • 1
            0

            So to China, moral considerations do not matter. Others sovereignty matters not. Just even starve a country to get your pound of flesh.
            Tiananmen Square comes to mind – no individual rights. Imagine SL under this type of regime.

      • 2
        0

        Once the Federal Govt of Australia cancels it, that is effectively the end of the ‘road’, no pun intended.

  • 6
    0

    Yes, an excellent article, cannot fault any of the points that Dr Ali raises. How will India and the US react to this port project?

  • 4
    10

    Author
    “The Port City of Colombo, which is for all intents and purposes is emerging as a Chinese Port City, “
    Could you kindly elaborate on this statement, for which you have not provided even circumstantial evidence. You are chanting ‘Chinese Port City’ like a mantra the way Trump did ‘Chinese Virus’.
    “(There were rumours that China even paid the protestors)” Are such your sources?
    *
    India had expressed interest in investing not long ago.
    For the Port City to be successful, it has to have a wide range of investors.
    Otherwise it fails.
    If it fails, based on your declaration, the Chinese will be the biggest losers.
    I think that you are speculating on many things based on guesswork.
    BTW, the Port City was not China’s brainchild. Its origins were in the UNP government.
    *
    Even the Independent story that you cite is faulty, the country never received even a significant fraction of billion UD$ worth of arms from any single source.
    *
    “After 1976, when China adopted a purposely designed capitalist economic model without relinquishing the communist political infrastructure, the country’s master plan was to achieve global domination, both economically as well as in military terms.”
    Thank you for the amusing conspiracy theory: that speaks volumes for the objectivity of your analysis.

    • 5
      3

      SJ

      “Thank you for the amusing conspiracy theory: that speaks volumes for the objectivity of your analysis.”

      Here is another Western conspiracy theory:
      https://www.wionews.com/videos/gravitas-uproar-in-sri-lanka-over-chinese-project-379127

    • 3
      2

      ” Could you kindly elaborate on this statement, for which you have not provided even circumstantial evidence.” Ebenezer, Why? What happened? Ebenezer, your Google broke down or you leased it out to China With HangBangTota??

      ,i> If it fails, based on your declaration, the Chinese will be the biggest losers. (I too think that China would stand to lose, after China paid not just for politicians, but even to Bald Heads and UOJ Chaddampies) Could you kindly elaborate on this statement please? I have Thudakku to use Google.

      “BTW, the Port City was not China’s brainchild. Its origins were in the UNP government. At least you are right on one thing. Thought one of the slogan Ranil’s UNP used to win Yahapalanaya elections in 2015 that that it would roll back Colombo Pong Cing sales, yesterday Ranil told to reporters that it was he who first drafted the Colombo Pong Cing legislation. He is saying that the royal should consult him to get finer ideas.
      Listen, Prof. Satkunanathan anyway will come back to job getting better from Heart condition. Instead of that hope, why don’t you talk to Ranil, when he form the new national government with Old King, for Education Minister, pushing GLP in a garbage dump.
      Komali!

  • 6
    3

    Thank you, Dr. Ameer Ali. Quite a good analysis – interesting and instructive.

  • 4
    2

    Dr. Ali, you being a political science professor both in Sri lanka and elsewhere have given a very useful and explanatory consequences of what would happen to Sri lanka, in the long run , if the present regime haphazardly approves these two programs – ie- CPC and CPCEC , without considering in details the merits and demerits of them. This would be similar to” admitting a Chinese large Camel into a Sri lankan tiny sleeping tent.” Further, this action would also antagonize the other World democratic Economic Super powerful countries such as U.S.A, Japan, U.K. , France , Germany,India,Canada and Australia , who are already facing trade disputes unsettled with China
    and thereby , reduce the status of Sri lanka into one similar to Myanmar in future.

    • 2
      7

      PL
      A little correction.
      He is an academic specialized in economics, and taught economics at home and abroad.
      *
      No qualification or achievement protects against prejudice.

      • 4
        2

        SJ, No qualifications or achievements protects against one,s own stupidity. He is an academic specialized in economics and has the commonsense to share his knowledge in that field. . You Mr. Know it all ??? After getting training from Drs google / YT/ FB advised mortality in Covid is ONLY in 70 years and above.

        • 2
          4

          What seems your problem?
          Stupidity, prejudice, or both?

          • 2
            4

            Any more attempted Fatwas?

          • 4
            4

            You playing doctor and passing false/fake information to the naive Prof. Know it All. There is not much difference between Dr. Bandara and you.

        • 3
          3

          Dr. Chiv

          Academics specialized in something can certainly be biased and pedal conspiracy theories. We all know the tendencies of this Ali clown.

          I hope you are enjoying your Covid Spike in India. I am sure the US will come to save the day after we are all inoculated.

  • 5
    4

    “One would hope some wisdom to prevail in forthcoming negotiations to prevent Sri Lanka becoming China’s satellite.”

    Those who cry about Sri Lanka becoming a Chinese colony forget that, collectively, millions of Chinese live outside China, in Indonesia, Phillipines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, and every major Western capital. All it means is that Chinese excel at business. At one point, Australia enacted a “White Australia” immigration policy to keep the Chinese out. Wherever Chinese go, success follows. The simplest example being Malaya. After Malaya was divided into two, one component became first-world Singapore, while the other became the equivalent of a toilet. Also, this partnership for Sri Lanka is beneficial for technology transfer, as China will be a leader in renewable energy and robotics.

    • 4
      4

      Lester you should consider moving to China the dream land and work on renewable energy and robotics. Will those robotics parrot the way you do .

      • 3
        4

        Poor Chiv, where is your homeland aka fake state now? Your Western friends are too busy with Iran to waste their time on genocide resolutions. Hezbollah is on the verge of taking over Lebanon with 20,000 missiles pointed at Dimona nuclear reactor in Israel. China will have the last laugh when the mushroom cloud goes off.

  • 3
    5

    Regi, I am aware of it. But Trump also started fire in multiple fronts with EU , UK, NATO , Mexico , Canada and many others. China has manipulated trade for years and getting out will take determination, time , pain and more than anything right policies. But if at all any country can do I believe it will be U.S If they succeed in doing so then definitely it will encourage those allies doing the same. For a long period U.S was at the mercy of Oil producing countries who used the pricing for leverage. But the situation is not the as same now. Whether countries can succeed or not it is time they take measures to not be a hostage ( trade ) . Selling the country in piecemeal is never an option. China was interested not just in infrastructure projects but to take over mines / resources which needed funding.

  • 0
    0

    Chiv,

    I agree with you that China manipulates Trade. But then who doesn’t? You think US is trades fairly?
    Do you think Canada with all it’s Diary cartels and Potash cartels trades fairly?
    Probably no country is perfect enough to cast the first stone China.

    They all break trade rules every now and then.

  • 0
    0

    Regie, it is better not to get into whataboutism. But let me ask you a simple question I can give you plenty examples where US has a negative trade balance with countries but can you give me one (significant) for China ???

  • 0
    0

    A 14455, so sorry to disappoint you, U.S is already in the process of saving us.

    • 0
      0

      P.S please refer to White House Notification.

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