Ham­ban­tota Port project: Per­ilous step by China

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS -

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.”

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