Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Sri Lanka earlier this month was widely seen as heralding a new chapter in bilateral relations between the two nations. During his visit, which was the first to Sri Lanka by a Chinese President in 28 years, Xi pushed for the country’s cooperation on China’s initiative to create a Maritime Silk Road (MSR) for the 21st century. The ambitious project aims to establish a lucrative sea-trade route between China and other countries in the region and beyond.
The initiative was first proposed by President Xi during a speech to the Indonesian Parliament in October, last year. The original proposal called for the establishment of such a route to increase maritime cooperation between China and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, China later expanded the concept to include other countries further south of the region and beyond. As such, it came as no surprise that China touted the proposal to countries such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives to expand the new MSR further.
China has dramatically increased investment in Sri Lanka in recent years, and its involvement in the building of the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City Project is seen as evidence of its intention to develop maritime infrastructure, particularly ports, in order to better facilitate such a trade route with Sri Lanka being one connecting point.
Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Anuruddha Pradeep, pointed out China was also busy financing the building or upgrading of many ports in other countries of the region including in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Having a foothold in ports along the MSR is key to China’s chances of making such an ambitious project a success, he pointed out.
The new MSR is seen primarily as a trade route, bringing important economic benefits to both China and other countries that are part of it. However, there has been some concern, particularly in the West and even in India, that China was building a ‘String of Pearls’ that gives Chinese naval assets access to a series of strategically-important ports stretching from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea. This would particularly worry regional power India, due to fears that such a project would allow the Chinese to encircle it.
Pradeep said the concern was not without merit. “While the primary aim of the MSR is to establish a lucrative-trade route, there is a possibility that some of the ports could be used for strategic purposes should a military need arise. This is why some countries, particularly India, might be concerned,” he opined.
India, in particular, has an uneasy history with China, having fought a border war with the country in 1962. “These are not pleasant memories for India and as such, there would naturally be some suspicion regarding the project,” Pradeep observed.
However, Executive Director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Asanga Abeygoonasekara said he did not see any military element behind the MSR project.
He pointed out that a Maritime Silk Route existed between China and other countries from ancient times. An attempt to reestablish such a route for the 21st century would naturally bring immense benefits not just for China but all countries in the region.
“If you look at South Asia, it is very weak in regional integration, particularly bodies such as SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), which is basically a dead horse,” he stressed, and adding the institutions that have been set up to strengthen such integration were not addressing the issue at all.
Noting that Sri Lanka had signed 27 bilateral agreements with China during President Xi’s visit this month, Abeygoonasekara said the benefits of infrastructure development through Chinese investment will continue to be reaped by the country. The economic benefits of being part of the MSR would be felt immediately, according to him.
He also opined India had no real cause to worry regarding any Chinese military encroachment in the region and did not believe closer ties with China would negatively impact Indo-Sri Lankan relations.
“India is our closest geographical neighbor, and we have enjoyed an extremely close relationship from ancient times. China needs to be more involved in the region, and it is extremely good that this is happening.”
However, Abeygoonasekara stressed India needed to play a much bigger role in the region, which is not happening at present, and pointed out that China was now the manufacturing hub of the world, thereby gaining a clear economic advantage.
Pradeep though, while agreeing that being part of the MSR would bring economic benefits to Sri Lanka, cautioned that the government needed to be careful so as not to overplay the ‘China Card’.
There are other powerful countries and allies in the region. India has become increasingly involved in Sri Lanka recently, both economically and politically, perhaps to counterbalance Chinese influence in its strategically important southern neighbor. Sri Lanka seems to be aware of this and looks to be actively trying to exploit the situation, Pradeep observed. “However, this is not without risk. We also cannot afford to alienate others,” he cautioned.
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