Colombo Telegraph

The New York Times Article: Reading Beyond Spinelessness

By Chamindra Weerawardhana

Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana

This article is one of a kind – the type of article that this writer normally shuns. 

On 25th June 2018, The New York Times published an article, entitled ‘How China got Sri Lanka to caugh up a port’. The article was written by a South Asia correspondent, Maria Abi-Habib. The article was also the fruit of a collective effort. In other words, Abi-Habib was not the only person who researched and put the article together. It was done with the help of a team of journalists in Beijing and Colombo [namely, and to quote the NYTimes verbatim, Keith Bradsher and Sui-Lee Wee from Beijing, and Mujib Mashal, Dharisha Bastians and Arthur Wamanan from Sri Lanka]. 

This article delves into the port of Hambantota, built by a Chinese state-owned concern, in a partnership with Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa administration. The article then refers to close interactions that took place between the Rajapaksa administration, the presidency and the First Family of Sri Lanka, and the Chinese. 

This article was a strategic move, and the aftermath of its publication has clearly shown that the political and strategic motivations of publishing the article on 25th June 2018 were met with, and in grandiose style. If anything, there is no denial that this article is a considerable career boost to Abi-Habib, and to the other journalists involved in its coming to being. 

When this writer first read this article last month, her first reaction was clear – one of total indifference, given the unmistakable mediocrity that characterises Western media gimmicks intended at bashing a specific political leader or party in the global South. 

The reason for this would be clear to anyone familiar with the exclusionary politics and agendas of Western media houses. Every letter they write and every word they utter in relation to national and international politics is part of a clearly defined agenda. At the time of writing [13th July 2018], for example, the BBC was involved in a desperate effort to reinforce one of its most common practices, giving space to and normalising fascism, racial discrimination, and a discourse that could only be described as carrying all the characteristics of a large-scale hate crime. The lies, the arrogance, the exclusionary and uptight attitude, and the constant inclination to portray humane figures in fascists, from trump to farage [use of the lower case is deliberate], is part and parcel of the BBC’s media ethos. Big media in Turtle Island are of the same ilk. 

The article

The first point that comes to light as one reads through the article by Abi-Habib and her associates, is the extremely patronising tone that runs from the beginning to the end. It is as if Abi-Habib, and the NYTimes had carte blanche absolue to write so arrogantly about diplomatic, trade, bilateral and strategic ties between one non-Western sovereign state and another non-Western sovereign state [which is also a superpower, or, to use the appellation used by an Indian academic working in Turtle Island, an ‘Eastphalian’ superpower]. 

The article mentions that its ‘research’ and ‘analysis’ shows how ‘China and the companies under its control ensured their interests in a small country hungry for financing’. 

A series of points are made thereafter, of Chinese funding for election campaigns, issues of foreign debt, speculations on the strategic relevance of the Hambantota port, and more. 

The article also says that China requested and required that China Harbour, Beijing’s preferred [state-run] firm, was given the contract to build the port, avoiding open-bid tender processes. It then quotes a retired Sri Lankan diplomat, highlighting that intelligence sharing was part of the deal from the beginning. 

The article also seeks to outline how ‘problematic’ China Harbour and its parent company, China Communications Construction Company, have been, noting how, in 2009, the latter was banned by the World Bank for eight years, from bidding on WB projects ‘because of corrupt practices in the Philippines’ [which certainly does not come as a surprise, as it is no secret that the US federal government holds the World Bank in a firm grip].  

The article also dwells upon the conditions laid out by China Merchants, in the run up to the new agreement that was signed in July 2017. It then refers to Chinese submarines docking at Sri Lankan ports, evoking a 2014 incident, when Chinese naval submarines docked at Colombo Port during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state visit. 

Reactions all over? 

The reactions to this article have been many, including responses from the Chinese Embassy in Colombo and the office of President Rajapaksa. Social media has been awash with confrontations, especially on Twitter. All that, this writer wishes to reiterate, benefits only one group – the writers of this article. 

Responding as futile & why so? 

In reality, there was no need for the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, or the Office of President Rajapaksa, to respond to this article. To follow that logic, there would have been no need to pen the present article either. However, and given the media storm that the article generated, it is worth driving home a few key points: 

1. China is a superpower in the Asia-Pacific region. As a superpower, and when dealing with smaller states, some of its approaches are inevitably bound to be exploitative, if not overpowering. Such a policy approach is no different from that of Western powers, who have been a lot more exploitative and destructive with countries and peoples with less agency, for many centuries. 

2. Sri Lanka is a sovereign state, and irrespective of the advisability and/or problems involved in specific cases, the Government of Sri Lanka has every right to negotiate whatever trade or strategic deal with external powers. In relation to China, Sino-Sri Lanka relations date back hundreds of years, and they did not begin when President Rajapaksa came to power. Rajapaksa only cemented centuries-long ties with China, based on the strategic and economic needs of the day [in recent history, bilateral ties with China were strongly strengthened by successive post-1948 governments, especially the Sirima Bandaranaike government during its tenure from 1970 to 1977, headed by the SLFP, Rajapaksa’s own long-time political home]. Irrespective of how Sino-Sri Lanka relations are managed, it is up to Sri Lankans and Chinese peoples and governments, diplomats and analysts to work out the management of such relations. Irrespective of how problematic such relations are, there is no need for coercive external speculation, especially from the West. We are yet to see a Western government, political party or individual leader hurrying up to cooperatively respond to critiques of their problematic relations and trade deals with many a repressive power across the world. Why a different policy for non-Western contexts is a question that should constantly be raised. 

3. There is no issue to raise in terms of Chinese financial support for elections. Sri Lankan political parties do receive external financing at election times, from foreign [especially Western] powers, international bodies and private donors. How such support becomes a problem when the funds come from China is something the author of the article should have explained better, as in the absence of such an explanation, the article stinks of first class hypocrisy. 

4. In relation to the speculations over defence ties between China and Sri Lanka [especially in relation to intelligence gathering on Sri Lankan waters and soil], Sri Lanka has, and must imperatively have,  full discretion over the management of such links. However, Sri Lanka also has the full discretion [if not the strategic obligation] to take the regional context into account, and avoid drifting into a strategically conflictual position, by becoming an antagonising ground for regional superpowers over security issues. Indeed, Sri Lanka is situated in a geo-strategically crucial place, and has close ties with both Eastphalian superpowers, India and China. In the 2017 Agreement on the Hambantota port, it is explicitly mentioned that China can only use the port for military and strategic reasons on the invitation of the Government of Sri Lanka. The clause is in the deal in black and white, and no further speculation is required, especially by those with little regard for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The NYTimes article almost sarcastically sniffs at this clause, a clear indicator of its low, if not next to no regard, for Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty. It quotes a Sri Lankan MP and State Minister who quips ‘governments can change’ [Water, for the information of the writers of this article, is wet!]. 

What the article tries to do here is to send an indirect signal, first to Colombo over its relations with China, and secondly, if not most importantly, to the Trump administration, to strike a ‘deal’ [the 45th President of the United States being no politician but a businessman…] with New Delhi to adopt a robustly patronising policy on Sri Lanka.

5. A key point that runs through this article is to create a negative [or to use western media’s favoured terms when referring to leaders from the global South], belligerent, near-criminal image of President Rajapaksa, the Rajapaksa family and close aides. Despite all arguable and disturbing issues that concern the ‘Rajapaksa decade’, the inclination of Western media to push Mahinda Rajapaksa against the wall for their strategic needs should receive all-around condemnation. It is primarily up to Sri Lankans, Sri Lankan institutions, and the Sri Lankan judiciary to address any wrongdoings under the Rajapaksa administration. If there is a lack of trust and reliability in such institutions, it is once again the exclusive responsibility of Sri Lankans to address such issues. No external intervention on this front should be tolerated. This I reiterate, does not imply a confrontational position with any Western government or supranational body. The template for action mentioned here is precisely drawn from how Western governments manage their internal affairs – something that also applies to leading member states of the European Union. Their positioning and power are such that their actions are almost never put into question at EU level or broader international level. There is simply no reason to apply a different rule for Sri Lanka [and for that matter, to other countries in the global South]. 

Conclusion 

This writer does not, by any means, imply that Sino-Sri Lanka relations under the Rajapaksa administration were perfect, or that  – on the Sri Lankan end – they were always managed in the best interest of Sri Lanka. However, it is up to Sri Lankan authorities and institutions, and to our counterparts in China, to address any questionable issues. The present article is also NOT, in any way, intended as a justification of China’s substantial influence over Sri Lanka and leverage over Sri Lankan government bodies, leaders and political parties. The point this writer wishes to drive home is that it is up to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans [and not to any third parties standing for the interests of external powers, including Western media houses and their employees] to address how Sri Lanka’s external affairs are managed. 

The overall lesson of this episode for the Government of Sri Lanka is to focus on the work to be done, and not on distractions from Western media houses. Managing Sri Lankan foreign policy is a highly challenging venture, involving a volatile regional and global context. It especially requires a cautious yet cordial [and highly challenging] ‘balancing act’ between Colombo’s relations with Beijing, Delhi and Washington DC. A key component of that balancing act should be a constant emphasis on national sovereignty, diplomatic tact and sound judgement, as well as a core focus on the national interest. 

*The writer (@fremancourt) is a political analyst and international consultant. 

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