Coughing up a Port!

Revelations that we in Sri Lanka suspected for long or knew about. I refer to the article by Maria Abi-Habib in the June 25, 2018 New York Times titled very succinctly How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough up a Port I received emailed not once but from three persons in the US and then listened to its exposé by the MTV Channel TVI on its English news broadcast at 9.00 pm on June 26. And now denials are flying around, with MP Namal Rajapaksa quoted in The Daily Mirror of June 28 as tweeting – NY(sic) article has many inaccuracies. He continues by noting: The country’s assets shouldn’t be used as a geopolitical pawn in the power struggle. Rich, coming from him, the eldest son and heir to the ex-President.

Quotes from the said article

The article in the New York Times shows that Maria Abi-Habib was on the spot of the subject of her reporting.

“HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka — Every time Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned to his Chinese allies for loans and assistance with an ambitious port project, the answer was yes.

Yes, though feasibility studies said the port wouldn’t work. Yes, though other frequent lenders like India had refused. Yes, though Sri Lanka’s debt was ballooning rapidly under Mr. Rajapaksa.

Over years of construction and renegotiation with China Harbor Engineering Company, one of Beijing’s largest state-owned enterprises, the Hambantota Port Development Project distinguished itself mostly by failing, as predicted. With tens of thousands of ships passing by along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the port drew only 34 ships in 2012.

And then the port became China’s.

Mr. Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015, but Sri Lanka’s new government struggled to make payments on the debt he had taken on. Under heavy pressure and after months of negotiations with the Chinese, the government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years in December.”

Going back in time I well remember a trip to Hambantota and visiting the new port site. Strict security was enforced. The name of the port was emblazoned across a huge board – Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Varaya. (or the person’s name came first before “Port”). The name board was well set even before a single ship came in. And this coming of ships was delayed to this large, blue swimming pool for a rock was discovered bang in the middle of the entrance to the port. However was it not discovered in the planning stage, questioned this idiot. We heard that expense to blast and remove the rock cost a pile! Though criticism of the Rajapaksa government was unofficially forbidden then, this bit of sand in the multitude of Sri Lanka’s population dared criticize the large projects undertaken in Hambantota, particularly the airport, reportedly in an elephant corridor, necessitating the shooting of peacocks when a flight was due. The vanity projects reminded this writer of Ozymandias in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of the same name.

I quote: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert. . . .

Near them, on the sand,/ Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

That last line is so apt; we despaired and still do with debts drowning the country.

Al-Habib continues thus:

“Though Chinese officials and analysts have insisted that China’s interest in the Hambantota port is purely commercial, Sri Lankan officials said that from the start, the intelligence and strategic possibilities of the port’s location were part of the negotiations.

Initially moderate terms for lending on the port project became more onerous as Sri Lankan officials asked to renegotiate the timeline and add more financing. And as Sri Lankan officials became desperate to get the debt off their books in recent years, the Chinese demands centered on handing over equity in the port rather than allowing any easing of terms.

Though the deal erased roughly $1 billion in debt for the port project, Sri Lanka is now in more debt to China than ever, as other loans have continued and rates remain much higher than from other international lenders.

The transfer gave China control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of its rival India and a strategic foothold along a commercial and military waterway.

The case is one of the most vivid examples of China’s ambitious use of loans and aid to gain influence around the world — and of its willingness to play hardball to collect.

The debt deal also intensified some of the harshest accusations about President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative: that the global investment and lending program amounts to a debt trap for vulnerable countries around the world, fueling corruption and autocratic behavior in struggling democracies.”

We believe all this. Some years ago, Myanmar realized this fact after China built a dam and asked the Chinese to depart.

Election aid

A huge investigation is on in the US of America to prove the Russian government helped Trump in his victory over Clinton in the presidential elections. We are given news about our own country in Al-Habib’s article:

“During the 2015 Sri Lankan elections, large payments from the Chinese port construction fund flowed directly to campaign aides and activities for Mr. Rajapaksa, who had agreed to Chinese terms at every turn and was seen as an important ally in China’s efforts to tilt influence away from India in South Asia. The payments were confirmed by documents and cash checks detailed in a government investigation seen by The New York Times.

Mr. Rajapaksa and his aides did not respond to multiple requests for comment, made over several months, for this article. Officials for China Harbor also would not comment.

Estimates by the Sri Lankan Finance Ministry paint a bleak picture: This year, the government is expected to generate $14.8 billion in revenue, but its scheduled debt repayments, to an array of lenders around the world, come to $12.3 billion.”

Damning! Investigated? Deputy Minister Ranjan Ramanayake is hot on the trail!

Port City

The reclaiming of land from the sea, or rather building up land at the end of the Galle Face Green in Fort, Colombo, was another shocker started by President Rajapaksa. We despaired when we saw machinery crawling on the sea front and advancing to the sea. It was stopped in 2015 but had to be restarted; the expense of stoppage so high it was not feasible to tell the Chinese to abandon this island creation. In an article I wrote timorously about this latest crazy scheme to this column on Sunday 28 September 2014 titled Already a Miracle Country, I noted: “All signed and sealed and to be delivered: the stupendous miracle of an island being made to rise from the Indian Ocean. Never mind the cost and indebtedness, stupid! Rejoice at this type of development embarked on by this Miracle of the East!”