ISTANBUL: The Chinese tracking ship Yuan Wang 5 has finally docked at Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka for replenishment after India and the United States tried, and ultimately failed, to persuade the local government to turn it away. The arrival of the massive vessel might seem like a victory for Beijing in this strategically important island nation.
But it is, in fact, nothing of the kind, because it reinforces the image of China as a predatory imperial power that is trying to exploit Sri Lanka for its own purposes. Beijing has done little to help the country through its devastating economic meltdown, providing far less aid than regional rival, India.
Quite why China would sit back and allow an adversary to reap the soft power benefits of this current crisis is baffling when it has often been blamed by the US government and others for causing Sri Lanka’s problems and could use an opportunity to improve its reputation on the island.
THE MYTH OF “DEBT-TRAP DIPLOMACY”?
It has long been claimed that Beijing engages in “debt trap diplomacy”, swamping poor countries with so much debt that they cannot pay back their loans and must surrender control of strategic assets, enabling China to expand its geopolitical influence under the guise of seemingly benign infrastructure projects.
Exhibit A in this regard is Hambantota, where the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) vessel has docked. The project was financed by Chinese loans, but in 2017, Beijing allegedly seized the port when Sri Lanka could not service its debt. Ever since, the example of Hambantota has been cited by Western officials seeking to warn of the perils of Chinese lending.
However, this episode has been widely misrepresented. China did not seize the port, but leased it for 99 years.
Sri Lanka proposed the deal because it urgently needed foreign exchange to pay Western creditors. The loans used to finance Hambantota were not written off; they are still on the books.
China supposedly grabbed Hambantota because it wanted to establish a naval base along strategic shipping lanes. But there has been no evidence of any PLA military activity there prior to the arrival of this tracking vessel. And Indian and American ships have visited, so why not Chinese?