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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – It all began 20 years ago, when China loaned Sri Lanka more than $1 billion to build a luxury new port – what would become the second largest – on its southern coast.
The port of Hambantota, with its strategic location near busy sea shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, has been described as good for Sri Lankan trade. But it was not profitable, and the government defaulted on those Chinese loans.
Beijing’s critics have long presented Hambantota as a classic example of what they call the Chinese debt trap. Now, with Sri Lanka bankrupt and politically unstable, they see it as a troubling example of how China can use that infrastructure for military purposes.
Their concerns increased this week, when a Chinese survey ship docked in Hambantota. Sri Lanka and China call it the Scientific Research Ship, which will last until August 22 for resupply. But foreign security experts call it a Chinese naval vessel that has been used in the past to track satellites and missiles.
Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP via Getty Images
The arrival of the ship, Tuesday, raised alarm bells in the West and in neighboring India, which has strained relations with Beijing. Critics say everything China is doing in Hambantota with this ship may indicate what it ultimately plans to do with all the ports, highways, bridges and other infrastructure it has built around the world in recent decades — in One of the largest construction efforts in human history. They fear that this huge network of infrastructure could be turned into an unprecedented network of military bases, occupying parts of countries where China had no foreign military bases before.
Sri Lanka was transformed by Chinese construction
Chinese companies, most of them state-owned, have built ports, power stations, an airport – even a giant lotus-shaped tourist tower – across Sri Lanka.
Tang Lu/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
Initially, these projects were hailed as symbols of Sri Lanka’s development, says Shereen Sorour, a human rights activist. She says many of the projects now look like “white elephants” – useless to the now bankrupt Sri Lankan government, but perhaps beneficial to China. Sorour believes they could be used to interfere with or control global trade, or perhaps even as launching pads for military aggression.
Sri Lanka has been one of the countries hardest hit by inflation and energy price hikes this year. In May, the government defaulted on foreign debt. By July, inflation was shoot it up to 60%. There are constant power outages and food shortages fuel rationing.
The economic crisis provoked a political crisis: Demonstrators filled the streets, demanding the overthrow of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Last month, he fled the country and resigned. A new boss is in place now.
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Many Sri Lankans accuse Rajapaksa and his brother, another former president, of running the economy on the ground. Demonstrators demand that everything they have done should be checked. One of the biggest things they did was sign opaque investment deals with China, including overseeing Chinese construction in Hambantota.
“This is economic colonialism,” says W. Judd Namal Fernando, a Sri Lankan fisherman turned activist who successfully lobbied a Chinese construction company. Compensation for fishermen whose lands have been eroded due to Chinese bulldozing North Colombo. “China is taking advantage of our country, but it is our leaders who allowed them to do so.”
China says its ship is on a scientific mission, not a military one
Both China and Sri Lanka have sought to assuage the concerns of those like Fernando and Saror, as well as foreign governments such as India, who fear the arrival of this Chinese ship may signal the start of the militarization of Chinese infrastructure in Sri Lanka.
“I would like to reiterate that the marine scientific research conducted by the research vessel Yuan Wang 5 is in accordance with international law and common international practices, and will not affect the security and economic interests of any country,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Monday briefing.
When the ship docked on Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy throw a welcome party. workers stop attentive, Waving Chinese and Sri Lankan flagsThe Chinese ambassador hailed the “excellent friendship” between the two countries.
Qi Hongliang // Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
But Indian media reported Some senior Sri Lankan officials boycotted the ceremony.
It was the arrival of the Chinese ship to Hambantota It said Delayed amid objections from India, which shares a border of more than 2,000 miles disputed with China, where there are soldiers I fought two years ago.
On Tuesday, Sri Lankan government spokesman Pandula Gunawardana told reporters that plenty of international ships docked in Sri Lanka and insisted this ship was no different – but emphasized that the government was working to ensure there was no “friction” with friendly countries.
Concerns about the struggle for economic influence over Sri Lanka
On Monday, as the Chinese ship approached Hambantota, India donated a naval reconnaissance aircraft to Sri Lanka.
With soured relations between China and the world’s democracies, including India, Sri Lankans feel caught in the middle, Surur says.
“People are very worried about whether we will be the battleground between the tensions between China and India – and whether Sri Lanka will be the point where the war will start,” she says.
Sorour says if it’s not a war with weapons, then it’s a war on economic influence.
China is one of the largest creditors of Sri Lanka. However, most of the country’s debt is owned by private banks in the United States and Europe.
India was also a major lender. Over the past decade, stretched Nearly $2 billion in credit lines to its southern neighbor. But India cannot do more. It’s the deal With its own inflation crisis.
Rafiq Maqbool / AP
So Sri Lanka is asking the IMF for a bailout plan. International Monetary Fund He said Political instability in the country may prolong its delivery.
“In the meantime, we need money to survive. We need about $800 million a month. And someone will have to fund it,” says WA Wijewardena, former deputy governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank. “Earlier, this person was the European Union or the United States or Japan or India – which has its own problems. And now this person? China.”
Wijewardina says China has deep pockets and is often willing to lend faster than the IMF, with fewer questions asked. He expects his country to borrow more Chinese loans and dig deeper into Beijing’s debt in order to stay afloat until the IMF bailout is completed – most likely in January.
Learn Mandarin in Colombo
Not everyone in Sri Lanka sees China’s presence as negative.
“The Chinese market is expanding in Sri Lanka! Like a massive expansion,” says Chamath Jethan Pereira, a 27-year-old businessman in Colombo.
Pereira is learning Mandarin and was awarded a scholarship from the Chinese government to study for her master’s degree in Chongqing. After three years there, he landed a job at a Chinese construction company in Colombo.
Pereira says Sri Lankans need to learn how to communicate with Chinese officials.
“If they develop our country with the port city or [other projects]We need to have a clear mind about what they are going to do,” he says port city colombo, Chinese complex in the capital. “So there is no need to blame anyone but ourselves.”
Pereira says it is easy to blame China or the Rajapaksa brothers for all of Sri Lanka’s current problems. He says it may be difficult for the country’s new leaders to avoid the same mistakes.
Susita Fernando contributed to this story from Colombo.
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