The long shadow of the dragon in Sri Lanka
New Delhi: For some South Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh, the “Chinese nightmare” is no longer just a bad dream. It is a living reality, which continues to threaten the national interests of countries and erode their very sovereignty.
Sri Lanka’s fall into the dragon trap was sparked when China, taking advantage of the deteriorating relationship between Colombo and Washington, began aggressively wooing Mahenda Rajapaksa’s government upon taking office in 2005.
In 2007, the war against the LTTE was raging and the island nation faced growing international criticism over human rights issues.
The United States has significantly reduced its overseas aid program, and aid from its Indian neighbor has been limited by Tamil sentiments at home.
The closely guarded dragon struck a $ 37 million deal for Chinese ammunition and ammunition.
This was followed in 2008 by the donation of six F7 fighters, a JY-11 radar and anti-aircraft guns. By the end of the war with the LTTE in 2009, relations with China had become a “strategic cooperative partnership”.
However, China’s deadliest decision in its strategic game came in 2007 itself, when it asked Rajapaksa to lease land in Hambantota for the construction of a port at a cost of $ 1 billion.
By 2014, Chinese aid and loans to Sri Lanka had exceeded a staggering $ 6 billion, which included the Colombo Port City Project (CPCP), the southern container terminal of the Colombo port, an area exclusive investment 35 miles from Colombo Port and a rail project. . The net had been cast.
Now it was up to China to start rolling it up.
This is exactly what President Xi Jinping, during his visit to Sri Lanka in September 2014, did and an agreement was signed for Chinese companies to operate the port of Hambantota, which is now bleeding.
After trapping its prey under a debt trap, Beijing then began to use its power to twist Colombo’s arms to dock the CCP’s navy submarines in Sri Lankan ports during their deployment in the Indian Ocean.
These submarines, which are accompanied by underwater rescue vessels, have entered the region more frequently in recent times and find Sri Lanka a convenient port of call.
What’s interesting to note here is that Sri Lanka is the only country in the Indian Ocean along with Pakistan that these submarines have entered during their deployment for the past seven years.
The shadow of China has also hung over politics and the elections in Sri Lanka.
After 2011, China had also influenced Sri Lanka’s foreign policy decisions, having established a firm grip on the government through the burgeoning debt traps.
With Sri Lankan debts to China exceeding $ 8 billion, the then government’s room for maneuver was already quite limited. And of course, Chinese diplomacy has always been very nimble in adjusting its front to changing dynamics.
In the aftermath of the 2015 election, China began to court not only political parties but also prominent Buddhist clergy in the island nation. This development was achieved through the realization of the influence of these religious figures in Sri Lankan domestic politics.
Certain other factors threaten to push Sri Lanka deeper into the dragon trap.
Last year, the IMF prematurely ended the island nation’s $ 1.5 billion loan program. This has been accompanied by the Covid pandemic, which has dealt a terrible blow to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry.
This “double whammy” put an end to any thoughts Sri Lanka might have had of saving its situation against China.
In March of this year, Sri Lanka announced a $ 1.5 billion currency swap with the Chinese Central Bank. He also declared his partnership with China for the development of two irrigation reservoirs in the Sinharaja reserve forest, which is a UNESCO protected heritage site.
On June 21, China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) implemented a project to build a 17 km elevated highway in Colombo, the terms of which provide full ownership of the company for its revenues and profits for 18 years. .
This is the same CHEC, which is a subsidiary of the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) which runs the Hambantota Port Project, Mattala International Airport and Colombo Port City, worth 1.1 billion dollars.
For the 2015 elections, payments totaling $ 1.1 million were tied by CHEC to supporters of Rajapaksa’s election campaign.
Today, the situation is grim as Chinese pressure is forcing Sri Lanka to withdraw from agreements with other countries.
In December 2020, Sri Lanka canceled a $ 480 million deal with the US Millennium Challenge Corporation. In the same month, Sri Lanka also canceled the Colombo East container terminal agreement, to which India and Japan were signatories.
There have been a few attempts by Sri Lanka this year to show “non-alignment” in strategic projects, but Chinese influence in Sri Lanka makes these efforts seem extremely weak at the moment.
The Chinese strategy is a carcinogenic trap which attracts its victims when they are weakest.
The bait remains constant, however – money and seemingly “soft” loans, thereby trapping the incumbent government in frivolous infrastructure projects at rates “too good to be true”.
The modus operandi of the engagement was similar in Africa, Asia and Latin America where countries were indebted with Chinese loans of billions of dollars.
Sri Lanka was baited as it faced international criticism over human rights issues, and its strategic and neighboring allies such as the United States and India were not available to help.
Decisions made by Sri Lankan rulers during this time caused the dragon to wrap itself around its prey, and today the island nation finds its strategic decision-making increasingly constrained by this tight grip on Beijing. .