China expanding strategic foothold in Lanka, soon to get hold of large parts

at 2:46 pm
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (file pic)

New Delhi (NVI): China, unnerved by the Quad’s focus on Indo-Pacific, is expanding its strategic foothold in Sri Lanka, which has critical location in the region, thanks to the extreme generosity of the government of Rajapaksas.

The extent of generosity of the Sri Lankan government, headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, can be gauged by the reported move to sell hundreds of acres of prime land to Chinese companies in the Colombo Fort and Slave Island areas.

The reported move comes even as China is in the process of seizing strategic control of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo besides the country’s major highways and ports after taking hold of Hambantota Port, which lies critically close to the busiest international East-West shipping lane that Beijing wants to dominate.

“Over the next two years, the Government plans to sell hundreds of acres of prime state-owned land in Colombo Fort and its adjacent Slave Island area, including property currently being used by the Sri Lanka Air Force and Sri Lanka Army,” the Colombo Telegraph reported.

It said the bulk of these properties have been reserved for China Harbour Engineering Corporation (CHEC), through an intermediary local firm created specifically for the purpose of easing the path for transfer to the Beijing-owned entity and other affiliated investors.

CHEC is the company that built and now has virtually complete management, administration and jurisdiction of the Colombo Port City. The Port City Bill was rushed through by the Rajapaksa government despite strong protests by the Opposition parties.

Earlier, this week, the government also awarded a project to CHEC for constructing an elevated highway costing 1 billion dollars, without any competitive bidding.

This makes CHEC the first foreign company to own a major highway in Sri Lanka on which it will operate a toll.

“By the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa concludes the first term of his presidency, China will have wrested control of several ports in the island and strategic inland property. It will own the bulk of Sri Lanka’s debt, as Colombo repeatedly leans on President Xi Jingping for bailouts amidst a serious debt crisis. Any Government that follows this regime will be saddled with this economic and strategic subjugation – there will almost be no way out,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed analyst as saying.

The increasing strategic foothold by China in Sri Lanka comes at a time when the Quad grouping of India, US, Japan and Australia has decided to focus on the Indo-Pacific region to counter Beijing’s increasing aggression and belligerence in the region, which is hampering free navigation.

China has been unnerved by the Quad’s strategy, which is being pushed by US President Joe Biden with more focus.

Viewing the Quad as a military bloc against it, China only two days back said “cliques” should not be formed, which can provoke “new Cold War”.

“No strategy should instigate countries to establish selective and exclusive military alliances, to gang up or to create the “new Cold War” featuring bloc confrontation, and the zero-sum game will only lead to more division, antagonism and chaos,” said Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National Defence, at an online press conference on Thursday.

The Rajapaksa brothers, in their quest to remain in power, believe that China can help in this endeavour through its financial muscle.

“In the coming years, Sri Lanka’s national electoral battles will also become a form of proxy war between Beijing Vs. The Quad. We saw some measure of that in the 2015 presidential election,” the Colombo Telegraph quoted the analyst as saying.

As it expands its strategic advantage in Sri Lanka, Beijing has been careful to invest in all influential sections of society in the island – Buddhist temples and their chief incumbents, senior journalists and media houses, powerful trade unions in the port and medical sectors and local politicians, Colombo Telegraph learns authoritatively, the newspaper said.

“Beijing also has assets situated in senior levels of the ruling Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration that are constantly looking out for China’s interests in all matters, it is learnt. Beijing’s cyber-intrusion into Sri Lanka’s social media landscape has also been noteworthy, and seen an escalation in recent months,” it said.

“It was the determination to create a monopoly on the island’s ports that led to Beijing’s mobilisation of monks and trade unions and other stakeholders to staunchly oppose the lease of the East Container Terminal in the Colombo Port to an India-Japan led joint venture,” the analyst explained.

Significantly, the CHEC was exposed by a 2018 New York Times investigation for “donating” over Rs 800 million to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential re-election campaign in 2014/2015 through its Standard Chartered Bank account in Colombo, the newspaper said.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The payments were made from a subaccount controlled by CHEC named the HPDP Phase 2, shorthand for “Hambantota Port Development Project”, the New York Times revealed in its report, the Colombo Telegraph said.

In 2011, the World Bank had blacklisted China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which is the parent company of CHEC, and all its subsidiaries after an investigation into fraudulent practices in a Philippines Highway project.

CHEC has reaped massive returns after the Rajapaksa family was returned to power in November 2019 but the procurement of thousands of acres of land in Colombo City would be essentially a seizure of Sri Lanka’s most strategic landmass by China, the Colombo Telegraph said.