Sri Lanka occupies a vital strategic space in China’s Maritime Silk Route (MSR). China’s objective to secure and dominate critical sea-lanes is not new. Six centuries back Chinese fleets ruled over the sea routes from Chinese coasts to Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Africa under the seven maritime expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch under the Ming dynasty.
The centrepiece of Chinese plans for a future base in Sri Lanka is Hambantota at the southern tip of the island, 240 km from Colombo. The ambitious project was aggressively pushed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for creation of a deep sea port and a new city in an under-developed region of the country. The $361 million first phase of the port financed by China’s Exim Bank was completed in November 2010. However, the port is poorly utilised and unable to meet its operating costs.
Similarly, the nearby Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport is perhaps the world’s emptiest because of the region’s inability to attract passengers or cargo. The new cricket stadium as well as a conference centre is also mostly empty. Nearly all the infrastructure at Hambantota has been financed by Chinese credit.
China has other major projects in Sri Lanka, including the Colombo South Container Terminal. The $1.4 billion Colombo Port City Project (CPCP) is financed by China and would include shopping malls, apartments, golf course, etc. In President Rajapaksa’s time, the CPCP had offered China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) 20 hectares of land on a “freehold basis” besides the 88 hectares it was granted on a 99-year lease. Significantly, the airspace over the Chinese held area was to be exclusively controlled by China.
In September 2014, following President Xi Jinping’s visit to Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa signed an agreement giving Chinese companies operating rights to four of the seven container berths at Hambantota port on a 35-year lease. These developments coupled with two visits by Chinese nuclear submarines to Sri Lankan ports in 2014 greatly alarmed India and soured India-Sri Lanka relations.
President Maithripala Sirisena sought to allay India’s apprehensions after his surprise election in January 2015. The new Sri Lankan government reviewed China financed port and infrastructure development projects but has discovered that it is in the grip of a Chinese financed debt trap.
Reportedly 98 per cent of China’s almost $8 billion investments in Sri Lanka are loans on commercial rates and more than a third of government revenue goes towards servicing Chinese loans. Sri Lanka’s trade with China is highly lopsided with imports from China in 2015 amounting to $8.3 billion and exports only $250 million. (In contrast, in 2014, Sri Lankan exports to India were $625 million and imports from India $3.8 billion.) Faced with rising balance of payments problems, Sri Lanka was forced to approach the IMF recently to secure a $1.5 billion bailout package.
Unable to meet the debt and operating costs, Sri Lanka is leasing both the Hambantota deep sea port and Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport to Chinese companies on a long-term basis. China Merchants Holding Company is on course to take over 80 per cent share in the port in swap of $1.1 billion Sri Lankan debt to China.
Another Chinese company is likely to get a similar stake in the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. Another project on the drawing board is a 15,000-acre China-led industrial zone thus creating a veritable Chinese enclave in southern part of Sri Lanka.
Hambantota is strategically located close to one of the busiest shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. In terms of investments in infrastructure in Sri Lanka, China is far ahead of other countries like Japan, Singapore and India.
It is obvious that Chinese development of ports in Sri Lanka is primarily to create a base for its own exports and eventually to have a presence of the Chinese Navy. This is a reminder of the way the European powers spread their control over maritime trade between Europe and South and East Asia in the 16th and 17th century.
This is a good time for the countries enthusiastically participating in the MSR project to critically re-examine the seven Zheng He voyages to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean between 1405-1424 under the Ming dynasty. The Chinese historians depict these “voyages to the Western ocean” as voyages of friendship but, in fact, these were aggressive attempts to control the Asian maritime trade routes with Melaka, Palmbang. Samudera, Calicut and Sri Lanka as key ports. Some analysts have described these voyages as “maritime proto-colonialism”!
Zheng He used to sail with an imposing fleet of 50 to 200 ships and force of up to 30,000 and touched more than 30 distant lands in Asia and Africa. A typical mission comprised in the senior ranks, almost 100 envoys of various grades, 93 military captains, 104 lieutenants as well as medical and astrological staff!
These were undoubtedly military missions with strategic aims. The imposing fleet of Zheng He would certainly have been seen as menacing by the receiving rulers.
There are historical records that Zheng He’s sailors clashed with the forces of Majapahit in Java in 1407, destroyed a stupa in Ayodhya and used gunpowder explosives against local chieftains in Mogadishu. Ming Emperor Yongle had threatened the Burmese ruler in 1409 with an attack from the sea by a maritime force.
The attack by Zheng He on Sinhalese Kotte Kingdom in 1411 is very well recorded. Kotte King Alakeshvara posed a threat to Chinese trade by committing piracy and hostilities in the local waters.
Alakeshwara was hostile to the Chinese presence in Ceylon during the first voyage and Admiral Zheng He had to leave Ceylon and travelled to other destinations. Smarting under this setback, in the third voyage in 1410, the fleet returned to Ceylon, invaded the royal city and destroyed Alakeshwara’s military. Alakeshwara, his family and principal officials were captured and taken to the Ming emperor. The Ming appointed a puppet ruler to replace the king. The Chinese troops from the expedition to Sri Lanka were handsomely rewarded.
The Chinese were overbearing and contemptuous of the Sinhalese, whom they considered rude, disrespectful and hostile. An extract from the 1515 book, The Collected Works of Yang Rong, reveals the racist Chinese attitude:
“Straight-away, their dens and hideouts we ravaged
And made captive that entire country,
Bringing back to our august capital,
Their women, children, families and retainers, leaving not one,
Cleaning out in a single sweep those noxious pests, as if winnowing chaff from grain…
These insignificant worms, deserving to die ten thousand times over, trembling in fear…
Did not even merit the punishment of heaven.
Thus the august emperor spared their lives,
And they humbly kowtowed, making crude sounds
Praising the sage-like virtue of the imperial Ming ruler.”
The critical fact, which needs to be squarely faced by the costal countries, is that it is overwhelmingly China that would benefit from MSR. It is only the Chinese goods, which would be carried on Chinese containers with most of these containers returning empty to Chinese ports.
The economic relationship between China and other participating countries would be highly unequal; and countries which invite Chinese investment in infrastructure would succumb to a debt trap. Like Sri Lanka, they would be forced to cede ownership and control of ports, enclaves and roads to Chinese companies.
It would be veritable colonialism in a new Chinese avatar!
The writer is a retired ambassador