Colombo Port City Project: Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ threat looms large in IOR

    07-Jun-2021
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“The location of the Colombo port is likely to give the Chinese, a strategic edge as the Indian peninsula can be guarded and kept under direct surveillance making it a concern for New Delhi. The expansionist regime of China, furthering its maritime silk route project, has also sought to push its 'strategy of encirclement' against India through the acquisition of the land.”
 
 
 
 

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Abhigyan Ranjan
 
The developments in the island nation and India's immediate neighbour have surely been on the top of the menu in the world of international politics. The incumbent Gotabaya government has given a green signal to the Chinese for taking over the port of Colombo defying the opinions of civil societies, labour unions, and various other stakeholders of the region. They overruled their constitution by making reckless amendments to it after the highest judicial body of the nation found the move inconsistent with the law of the land following the petition by opposition parties.
 
The citizens battling the second wave of coronavirus, too, registered their voice and saw the deal as a compromise with the sovereignty of the country. They are aware of the dragon's intentions and credibility, which is engulfing one after another land using its debt-trap diplomacy. The regional powers like India and Japan are disconcerted as they view China as a threat to peace and security in East Asia. The location of the Colombo port is likely to give the Chinese, a strategic edge as the Indian peninsula can be guarded and kept under direct surveillance making it a concern for New Delhi. The expansionist regime of China, furthering its maritime silk route project, has also sought to push its 'strategy of encirclement' against India through the acquisition of the land.
 
It is indispensable to analyze the motives of China and the significance of port situated in the Indian ocean, to understand the ramification of rising China in global politics, of late.
 
A peep into the project
 
As alleged by the ruling party, the agreement will sanction the renovation of the port city on the Public-private- Partnership (PPP) model which can attract an investment of 15 billion dollars creating 200,000 jobs transforming it into a hub for tourism, commerce, and culture. The dream city of Colombo, which is claimed to be Singapore of South Asia, is to be built on sustainable values, a healthy environment with future-ready infrastructure to enhance living convenience. The project is being financed (1.4 billion dollars) by CHEC majorly which is a unit of China Communications Constructions Company.
 
This contract, however, will concentrate unbridled power in the hands of a five-member authority administering the designated special economic zone (SEZ). It will bar the elected government from regulating the functioning of its one of the most pivotal strategic assets, reducing them to a rubber stamp and mere spectator. Needless to say, it is an invitation for the authoritarian regime to construct a colony in the sovereign nation-state.
 
The port city project will lead to the eviction of thousands of people residing in its vicinity which already has created a sense of unrest and insecurity among the locales. The surrendering of Colombo Port after that Hambantota depicts the vulnerability of the country on the economic frontier which may culminate in a wider geopolitical challenge in the region.
 
India's concerns
 
India- Sino relations had hit a new low after a face-off between Indian soldiers and the People's liberation army in the Galwan region of Ladakh valley which claimed lives on both sides. The ties further deteriorated after the government of India made a crackdown on major tech giants which were earning huge revenue citing national security after peace couldn't be restored on the border. The valour that India displayed to tackle the aggression by the Chinese bolstered its image as a key strategic rival to the latter in the eastern hemisphere. Tomorrow, Beijing, sitting in the backyard of Indian territory, barely 300 km from the mainland is a sort of summoning to the security of the country. The procession reaffirms the hypothesis of 'string of pearls' which declared that China was establishing a strong line of communication from its land to the thorn of Africa which can assist them in containing India and isolate them militarily in war times.
 
The New Delhi, however, has eyes on the situation prevailing in Colombo and seems to be waiting until the different dimensions of the situation unfold to measure the magnitude of menace before revealing its card. Nonetheless, the act disgruntled the Indian side because East container Terminal (ECT), a tripartite deal between India, Japan, and Sri Lanka was unilaterally revoked by the then, Mahinda Rajapaksa government after the protest by various authorities associated with the port. The offer to develop the West container terminal may be in a state of limbo and uncertainty unless the aforementioned members of 'QUAD' don't review the matter conspicuously.
 
 
Tackling the challenges and the way forward
 
Sri Lanka had been a less influential country militarily and economically which has always received the cooperation of India in the time of crisis. Being a budding economy, India has always promoted various infrastructural projects and invested in their country through various economic aids. India has supported them significantly in coping with 'Liberation tigers for Tamil Elem' (LTTE) rebels to secure peace and harmony.
 
The island nation which is largely dependent on tourism receipt to counteract weak remittances and pay foreign loans is suffering economic woes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which hinges upon the doctrine of offensive realism to realize Mao's vision of grand China has been quick to cash in these critical situations.
 
India needs to play more smartly and take preemptive measures, in case, it wants to neutralize China and maintain a balance of power in the region. India, with, sizeable Forex reserve can offer a line of credits to boost development and make some cash swap arrangement so that the dwindling economies can be protected from the recession. India, being one of the largest business partners of Sri Lanka shares trade of around 4.93 billion dollars in which the former makes the bulk of exports ($4.16 billion) with several free trade agreements (including ISFTA) among both the nations. India is the largest investor in Sri Lanka which gives leverage to hold them accountable on the table. The countries share cultural ties, too, which dates back to the age of Ramayana and relation continues to grow with more people to people contact through pilgrimage and education every year. India will not face many difficulties to find a solution with Sri Lanka because there are not any major fundamental differences between the two and both are natural allies. It is China which is trying to trespass various country and take advantage of their economic condition and needs to be firmly dealt with.
 
India can use 'Vaccine Maitri' by ramping up the manufacturing of vaccines and restart the shipment at the earliest to revitalize its relations across Asia and send a strong message through its 'neighbourhood first' policy.
 
Furthermore, India should revamp its 'Act east policy' for the time being and accelerate its trade and cultural ties with Southeast Asia to counter the intrusion of China. We can also hold the Chinese accountable on global fora on their human rights records and more specifically on the origin of the Wuhan Virus if we want to take them head-on and stop them from altering the structure of power.
 
 
 
 (Abhigyan Ranjan is a second-year degree student at the College of Integrated Studies, University of Hyderabad)