By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“What they wish to be, they believe is true.” – Carl Sagan (The Demon–Haunted World)
Sri Lanka is to get her first Formula One track. The Chinese will build it, in the soon-to-be-constructed artificial landmass, Colombo Port City.
Motor racing is a particular passion of Namal, Yoshitha and Rohitha Rajapaksa. In a few years, the presidential offspring will be able to glory in their very own Formula One track, thanks to Chinese generosity.
Rohitha Rajapaksa says he always dreamt of being world’s youngest astronaut. And China has reportedly promised to turn this yearning into reality.
(A necessary digression – Rohitha Rajapaksa is the Chief Technical Director of SupremeSAT, the company which sprouted with miraculous suddenness to take Lanka to space age. The youngest presidential offspring has been hailed as the creator of Sri Lanka’s satellite programme[i]. The first Lankan satellite was launched in 2012, with customary Rajapaksa pomp and pageantry. Subsequently it was revealed that Sri Lanka does not have a satellite programme and that the much vaunted Lankan satellite is actually a Chinese satellite. SupremeSAT merely rented it, reportedly a common practice[ii]. Incidentally SupremeSAT seems rather invisible these days[iii]; the last time it made news was in January 2014, when it was accused of supplying low-quality coal for Norochcholai power plant[iv]. Is SupremeSAT a Lankan version of that infamous historic hoax, the South Sea Company?)
The Chinese obviously excel at Rajapaksa-management. The best way to advance Beijing’s agenda in Colombo is to give Sri Lanka’s ruling family whatever it desires, besides backing its power-project to the hilt. Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted an international airport and an international sea port in his home city of Hambantota. No international investor/creditor was forthcoming, probably because of the extreme economic infeasibility of both ventures. The Chinese made those dreams possible. Other Ruling Siblings too are being helped with their pet projects from the Lotus Tower to military housing in the North/East and the Defence Services College in Colombo. With this Abracadabra approach, it is little wonder that the Rajapaksas are totally in thrall to the Mages in Beijing.
True, no international flight comes to Mattala. Even the visiting Chinese President opted to use the Bandaranaike International Airport. Without a government order making it mandatory for vehicle importers to use the Hambantota Port, that Chinese construction too would have become a ghost-port[v].
The regime says that Colombo Port City will create many jobs. An identical claim was made when the Hambantota Port was being built. Sri Lanka Ports Authority stated that “with the setting up of the Hambantota Port, nearly 56,000 job opportunities will be created in the Southern region”[vi]. That dream has become another mirage. In 2013, the government admitted that the Hambantota Port did not create any new job opportunities[vii]. The Mattala airport too is using employees of the BIA.
For Sri Lanka, these ill-conceived, uneconomical and environmentally costly projects bring little or no benefits. But for China they bring multiple advantages. Politically these projects help Beijing to win Rajapaksa hearts and minds, and bring Sri Lanka even more into Chinese orbit. There is no economic fallout either, because the loans are given at relatively high interest rates. Additionally the Chinese do not scruple to hike interest rates whenever it suits them. For instance, in 2013, Exim Bank increased the interest rate for the Hambantota Port loan by a huge 5% (from 1.3% to 6.3%). As Minister of Ports and Highways Rohitha Abeygunawardhana admitted, “Though we had earlier decided to pay 1.3% interest, consequent to negotiations between the two parties, the government has agreed to pay 6.3% interest per annum.”[viii]
Why did Sri Lanka agree to such an obviously unfavourable and unjust change? Because Colombo no longer has the ability to say no to China. The Rajapaksas are spending addicts, and the Chinese deliberately feed this addiction in order to render Colombo totally dependent on Beijing. If at any point of time addiction becomes even marginally tempered by commonsense, all China has to do is yank the financial chain; and the Siblings will have no option but to come to heel.
Loss of Sovereignty
Economic dependence creates political dependence. The resultant loss of sovereignty will prevent Colombo from acting in the best interests of Sri Lanka.
Take for instance the Maritime Silk Route project advocated by China. President Rajapaksa has embraced it enthusiastically. A more moderate response might have made greater sense from a national interest perspective since Modi-India is preparing its own alternative maritime project. Named ‘Project Mausam’, (a cultural project with a ‘serious strategic dimension’), it plans to “explore the multifaceted Indian Ocean ‘world’, extending from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent and Sri Lanka to the Southeast Asian archipelago”[ix]. In the contest between the Maritime Silk Route Project and Project Mausam, the best place for Lanka will be the sidelines. But that is not an option, given the growing Rajapaksa dependence on Beijing.
At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, the US and China had a public verbal battle over the South China Sea/islands issue. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel accused China of engaging in ‘destabilising unilateral action’ in the South China Sea and warned that the US will not ‘look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are challenged’.[x]. Deputy Chief of Staff of the Chinese Army Lt-General Wang Guanzhong charged that Mr. Hagel’s speech was ‘full of hegemonism, threat and intimidation’[xi]. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe weighted in by offering support to those Asian neighbours at loggerheads with China – namely Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia. Delhi has already offered a concessional credit line of $100 million to Vietnam to purchase patrol boat. Those boats of course will be used to keep tabs of the movements of the Chinese navy.
We live in a global context characterised by the waning of the existing imperial power (US) and the rising of a new imperial power (China). In such an uncertain world, the most sensible policy (especially for smaller countries) would be to remain strictly neutral, maintaining friendly relations with both powers but not becoming allied to either. After all, imperial powers often confront each other not directly but via proxies. Thanks to the growing Rajapaksa dependence on China, Sri Lanka can easily find herself in such an unfortunate situation.
Like most ascendant powers, China has an execrable environment and labour record. This year, Chinese scientists warned that China’s air pollution resembles a nuclear winter[xii]. Thanks to China’s labour practices and regressive taxation policies, the country’s rich-poor gap is one of the worst in the world[xiii]. In its Lankan ventures China will follow the self-same practices; these in turn will influence and inform Rajapaksa governance. After all empires are trend-setters and the trends set by the Chinese will be anti-democratic, iniquitous and environmentally unsustainable.
Tin-pot tyrants need patrons to bankroll them and defend them. The Chinese connection is a necessity for the Rajapaksas. But for Sri Lanka, it may be a ticking time-bomb in more ways than one.