THE CHINESE ARE NOT COMING – THEY HAVE ARRIVED!
In 2014 I wrote an article for LT Sri Lanka called The Chinese Are Coming. In the article I raised the question of potential issues, which may arise as a result of heavy Chinese investment in Sri Lanka. Two key concerns were the Chinese looking at financial investment as a form of colonisation and the potential for conflict with India as Chinese presence in Sri Lanka grows.
Many believe China’s interest in Sri Lanka is recent but a quick search of numerous websites tells me the first Chinese visitor to Sri Lanka was in the 5th century and trade between the two countries has continued since. In the 1950s the Rubber and Rice Pact was enacted enabling Sri Lanka to export rubber and rice to China. But while Sri Lanka is reliant upon China for growth, it is not a country that ranks high in China’s investment plans. However, it is a country, which is strategically located due to the ‘string of pearls’, that is the maritime access through South Asia for China.
China has not singled Sri Lanka out for special attention. The country’s search for minerals and oil has led to massive investments in Myanmar, Canada, Africa and Australia. And yes, these investments are paying off handsomely with the Chinese laughing all the way to the bank and investing in other countries, including Sri Lanka, where not surprisingly, the return on investments is not so good.
Sri Lanka has US$65 billion debt, of which US$8 billion is owed to the Chinese.
Three years on, what can we make of all this Chinese investment in Sri Lanka? Well let’s start by giving thanks. We can thank China for giving us what is a blot on the Colombo landscape, the port extension, which is nothing short of ugly.
We can also thank the Chinese for giving us the world’s most under utilised airport. It funded the development and building of Hambantota International Airport at an estimated cost in excess of US$200 million. Today it is devoid of both people and planes – a classic example of the white elephant. Maybe turning the airport into an elephant park would be bring more people and a better return on the dollar.
Today, we can thank the Chinese for giving us another blot on the landscape. People strolling along the Galle Face waterfront in Colombo are treated to wonderful, 24-hour displays of two large ships, dredging and pumping sea sand onto an ever increasing beach in preparation for China’s newest development in Sri Lanka – The Port City Project, a project which remains opposed by many. Port City will occupy the land from the back of the Kingsbury Hotel to the end of the existing port wall, giving the Chinese a 99 year foothold and potentially unofficial control of the commercial activity which is planned for the space. You have to admire Chinese strategic thought. If a country cannot pay back borrowed money, invest more by swallowing up the land, and renaming the country Chi Lanka!
With such huge debts Sri Lanka cannot survive without foreign investment and with very little interest from other nations willing to invest in Sri Lanka, it is a case of ‘Come On Down China.’ D. V. Chanaka, a Member of Parliament, is quoted as saying; “It’s been 69 years since we got our freedom. We do not want to be under any other country again.” Well as Carole King would say, “Well it’s too late baby, it’s too late.” The question Sri Lankans should be asking themselves, apart from whether or not they should learn Mandarin, is how will China’s financial investment in Sri Lanka, influence government policies and the business community, which will affect ordinary, everyday Sri Lankans.
Word on the street is that there are over 250,000 Chinese in Sri Lanka, many of them working on the Chinese funded projects, as China takes a stranglehold on Sri Lanka. I am sure many of these workers will not return to China. It is almost inevitable some will marry local Sri Lankans, producing Chi Lankan offspring. Taoism and Confucianism, meets Buddhism. There’s a whole new story waiting to be written on the work ethic of these offspring.
We all know that death and taxes are inevitable. I think you can also add Chinese investment in Sri Lanka to the inevitable list. However, I sincerely hope such investment never results in Sri Lanka becoming a war zone again, this time between what is perceived as the ultimate two world giants – China and India.