Hambantota Port project: Perilous step by China
Chinese projects all over the world can create debt traps for the countries they’re in, says a New York Times magazine article on “What the world’s emptiest international airport says about China’s influence.”
It deals with the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport ( MRIA) which Brook Larmer, contributing writer, says “…. the president at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa, fixated on the idea of turning his poor home district into a world- class business and tourism hub to help its moribund economy. China, with a dream of its own, was happy to oblige”
He adds: “Hambantota sits in a very strategic location, just a few miles north of the vital Indian Ocean shipping lane over which more than 80 percent of China’s imported oil travels. A port added lustre to the “string of pearls” that China was starting to assemble all along the so-called Maritime Silk Road.
Noting that China “marches on with its unabashedly ambitious global- expansion program known as One Belt, One Road the NYT magazine says the branding is awkward: “Belt” refers to the land- bound trading route through Central Asia and Europe, while “Road,” confusingly, stands for the maritime route stretching from Southeast Asia across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East, Africa and Europe and adds that “still, the intentions are clear - With a lending and acquisitions blitz extending to 68 countries ( and counting), OBOR seeks to create the ports, roads and rail and telecommunications links for a modern- day Silk Road — with all paths leading to China.
Of significance is the historic parallel drawn in the lengthy article with illustrations. This is what it says:
“The last time China was a global power, back in the early 1400s, it also sought to amplify its glory and might along the Maritime Silk Road, through the epic voyages of Zheng He. A towering Ming dynasty eunuch — in some accounts he stands seven feet tall — Zheng He commanded seven expeditions from Asia to the Middle East and Africa. When he came ashore on Ceylon ( present- day Sri Lanka) around 1406, his fleet commanded shock and awe: It was a floating city of more than 300 ships and some 30,000 sailors. Besides seeking tributes and trade — the ships were laden with silk, gold and porcelain — his mission was to enhance China’s status as the greatest civilization on earth.
“After Zheng He’s death at sea in 1433, China turned inward for the next six centuries. Now, as the country has become a global power once again, Communist Party leaders have revived the legend of Zheng He to show China’s peaceful intentions and its historical connections to the region. His goal, they say, was not to conquer — unlike Western empires — but to establish friendly trade and diplomatic relations. In Sri Lanka today, Chinese tour groups often traipse through a Colombo museum to see the trilingual stone tablet the admiral brought here — proof, it seems, that China respected all peoples and religions. No mention is made of a less savoury aspect of Zheng He’s dealings in Ceylon. On a later expedition, around 1411, his troops became embroiled in a war. Zheng He prevailed and took the local king back to China as a prisoner.
“The sanitized version of Zheng He’s story may contain a lesson for present-day China about unintended consequences. Pushing countries deeper into debt, even inadvertently, may give China leverage in the short run, but it risks losing the goodwill essential to OBOR’s longterm success. For all the big projects China is engaged in around the world — high-speed rail in Laos, a military base in Djibouti, highways in Kenya — arguably its most perilous step so far may be taking control of the foundering Hambantota port. “It’s folly to take equity stakes,” says Joshua Eisenman, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“China will have to become further entwined in local politics. And what happens if the country decides to deny a permit or throw them out. Do they retreat? Do they protect?” China promotes itself as a new, gentler kind of power, but it’s worth remembering that dredging deep water ports and laying down railroad ties to secure new trade routes — and then having to defend them from angry locals — was precisely how Britain started down the slippery slope to empire.”