China is building yet another enclave in Sri Lanka, Colombo Port City (CPC), raising concerns not only about its impact on local livelihood and traditional ways of being but even on the environment and the sovereign status of the land that would constitute the City.
As per International Forum for Rights and Security (IFFRAS), China seems to have found its gateway to the Indian Subcontinent in the island country of Sri Lanka, barely a few hundred kilometres from India's southernmost tip.
CPC is being constructed by reclaiming several hectares of land from the Indian Ocean to give China a strategic edge as part of its much talked about Maritime Silk Road.
This would also give impetus to Beijing's wolf-warrior diplomacy centred Belt and Road Initiative, effects of which the world has already witnessed when Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease as part of a controversial debt-swap arrangement.
By aggressively developing naval ports in the Indian Ocean region, it is believed that the Chinese are executing their string of pearls policy which aims to encircle potential rival nations such as India and dominate the trade routes involving the high seas as part of their quest for economic and thereby political supremacy, reported IFFRAS.
On May 20th, 2021 the Parliament of Sri Lanka passed the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill that lays out the governance and administrative framework for the CPC which makes it function like a Chinese sovereign territory independent of the Sri Lankan legal setup.
As part of the project, the 269 hectares of land which is being reclaimed from the ocean will be annexed to the city of Colombo to form the country's first special economic zone (SEZ) for service-oriented industries.
CPC is by far Sri Lanka's biggest foreign direct investment project worth about USD 1.4 billion, expected to further spur a USD 13 billion in secondary investment.
Currently, CPC is a joint project between China Communications Construction Company Ltd and the Sri Lankan Port Authority.
The project was launched in September 2014, when the Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Colombo to fulfill the dream of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
It is widely known that the Rajapaksa brothers, Prime Minister Mahinda, and President Gotabaya, have had a special relationship with China for more than a decade particularly after Beijing helped Sri Lanka with arms and ammunition during the civil conflict that ended in 2009.
Such has been the association between the Rajapaksa family and the Chinese that in June 2018, a New York Times (NYT) report alleged that the Chinese had paid the Rajapaksas substantial sums to see the CPC project through. The NYT also disclosed that a Chinese firm had financed the brothers' campaign during the country's 2015 parliamentary elections, reported IFFRAS.
Though the project was launched in 2014, it was delayed causing daily losses of USD 380,000. This did not deter the Chinese as they very cleverly managed to acquire extra land in compensation from the Lankans.
Moreover, once, the Rajapaksa government came back to power in 2019, work on the project began at an expedited pace. Tens of Sri Lankan ships sponsored by China are working overtime to dread sand from the bottom of the Indian Ocean to develop this area of 269 hectares.
Out of this, only 125 hectares of land will be taken by the Sri Lankan Government, about 88 hectares is being given to China on a 99 year Lease plus the Chinese have been offered a free hold on additional 20 hectares of land. This effectively means that Sri Lanka has sold its land and precious resources to China in the hope of seeking some economic benefits and development, reported IFFRAS.
With features that seemingly compromise the island nation's sovereignty and free will, the CPC Bill has been vehemently opposed by different political parties, civil society groups and the public at large.
The Bill also provides overarching powers to the Commission to act independent of the country's laws and allows foreign investors unbridled control over the local resources; in the process completely bypassing local laws.
Experts in fact, state that the Chinese do not have an interest in establishing any kind of partnership with Sri Lanka, instead, all they desire is a strategic overseas province. They seem to have already achieved their goals, first with the Hambantota Port and now with the CPC.
The CPC related Bill also empowers the President of Sri Lanka to establish a seven-member Commission to govern the Port City. Though overtly the exercise may seem fair, in reality the Commission has been bestowed with supreme powers over the province, including control of taxation, approval of new projects, investments and the right for firms to trade in their own currencies in the SEZ.
The Commission would also have foreign board members (say, Chinese) who would aid in the decision making process which will effectively introduce the Chinese undemocratic way of using force and pressure to have one's way within the system in the absence of any elected representative, reported IFFRAS.
Besides, the people of Sri Lanka have also raised other issues related to the CPC. The first dimension is social as the bill brings in discrimination wherein high end apartments, malls, luxurious facilities shall all be extended with concessions to foreigners and the locals will be alienated in their own land.
The second dimension is economic wherein the benefits that are likely to accrue from the SEZ will be mostly short term and limited, given the unfair clauses and terms & conditions of engagement between the Sri Lankans and the Chinese.
The third dimension is developmental wherein it is felt that the nature of jobs generated will be in the construction sector or in the hospitality sector with locals working in the lower rungs as workers at sites or as waiters and staff at malls, hotels etc.
There does not seem to be any emphasis on developing skills, adding value to employment generation that would be beneficial to the island nation in the long term. Moreover, it is feared that all the above mentioned factors would actually widen the gap between the rich and the poor, creating social inequalities and possibly, anarchy.
It is pertinent to note that Beijing's actions are part of an aggressive encirclement strategy aimed to counter India's strategic presence in the Indian subcontinent. More than half of the India's container traffic passes through this region.
Once the project is complete, it would be a regular affair to have Chinese ships buzzing in India's backyard thus posing a major security threat to the country, reported IFFRAS.
Sri Lanka seems completely taken over by the Chinese juggernaut. It is increasingly evident that China has emerged as the leading influencer of this small island nation almost with the sole intention of displacing India.