On May 20, the Sri Lankan parliament passed the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill which sets out the country’s legal framework governing the China-funded project built on reclaimed land on the waterfront. from the Sri Lankan capital, adjacent to the port of Colombo. The bill effectively turns those 660 acres into Chinese sovereign territory.
But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The shadow of China seems to hang over Sri Lanka whenever the Rajapaksa brothers – Mahinda and Gotabaya – win elections and rise to power. Mahinda Rajapaksa is currently Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. He was president from 2005 to 2015, when Gotabaya was Minister of Defense. Today Gotabaya is president; the Rajapaksas returned to power after the 2019 elections.
The previous Rajapaksa government reveled in Chinese loans and projects, including the ambitious port built at Hambantota. Although the feasibility studies warned, the port was built by a Chinese state-owned company with Chinese money. As expected, the port failed dramatically. And the Chinese came to collect their debt.
It was transparently the foreign debt trap policy that marked China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Lend money to a country to build infrastructure, have it built by Chinese companies, and then, according to the fine print of the contract, take over the infrastructure built after the country fails to pay its Chinese debt. Sri Lanka fell under the spell. Or more likely, the Rajapaksas knew exactly what was going to happen and were in total agreement.
A New York Times report published in June 2018 after a months-long investigation alleged that the Chinese had paid the Rajapaksas substantial sums to carry out the project. The NYT even listed specific details of how China Harbor, the company that built the port, allegedly funded the brothers’ campaign in the country’s 2015 parliamentary elections, from cash to saris for potential supporters. . The Rajapaksas lost those polls, but China’s plan would succeed anyway.
The new government struggled to repay the debt the Rajapaksas had incurred. Refunds soared to almost 85% of revenue. In 2017, an unfortunate Sri Lanka ceded Hambantota and 15,000 acres of neighboring land to China under a 99-year lease that was modeled, ironically, on the 19th-century concession for Hong Kong that Britain had. extracted from China.
The grabbing of the port had been China’s goal from day one. It now has a strategic territory just a few hundred kilometers from India. Chinese military submarines docked at Hambantota, which today is a key part of China’s “ pearl necklace ” strategy to encircle India in one way or another. And with Colombo Port City, Beijing is closer than ever to Kanyakumari.
In the meantime, China has also been active in other regions close to India. A recent report by Foreign Policy magazine reveals that Beijing has built at least three villages inside Bhutan, south of the Tibetan border. The villages are served by more than 100 km of new roads, a hydroelectric power station, two Chinese Communist Party administrative centers, a satellite communications and signals base, and military outposts.
The villages are part of a project to build hundreds of settlements along the Tibetan border. The inhabitants, described as “soldiers without uniform”, are urged to make “each village a fortress and each household a guard post”. Their main task is to guard the Chinese border and catch Tibetans who are trying to flee to India or Nepal. Foreign policy views Chinese movements as a shift from “nibbling at a neighbor’s territory to swallowing large portions.” The message to Bhutan is clear: “Cut your ties with India, or else …”
And on May 27, Chinese state media CGTN published an article by a Pakistani academic claiming that “the China-Nepal relationship is greater than Mount Everest.”
Elsewhere in the Himalayas, the impasse of military de-escalation in Ladakh continues. China appears to be relying on its well-worn but effective playbook of dragging negotiations endlessly, while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) builds roads and permanent structures on the disputed lands and its soldiers feel at home. The PLA appears to have settled for the long term all along the Ladakh border.
It is essential that India recognizes that being kind and hospitable to China does not work. Beijing has almost certainly interpreted India’s past civility as a mere weakness of resolve. China is a civilizational state that operates with a strong sense of overt destiny. This destiny, he believes, is the tianxia, “everything under the sky” coexisting harmoniously. Harmony, however, means living by the rules that China and its “son of heaven” emperor – a role Xi Jinping has imposed for himself – set for themselves. For three decades, China has followed Deng Xiaoping’s “tao guang yang hui” policy – hiding its ambitions, hiding its claws. Xi believes the time to keep a low profile has passed and that China can pursue its hegemonic goals openly and shamelessly. In fact, the word “hegemony” hardly describes what China thinks is its rightful place in the world – or rather above it.
India no longer has the excuse that China lied to us. Today, Beijing sees no need for subterfuge or cover-up. Everything is there for all to see. India must get rid of these world shibboleths as one family and act in its own interests without hesitation.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor-in-chief of “Financial Express”, and founder-editor-in-chief of “Open” and “Swarajya” magazines.
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