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Fair weather friendships and writing off China

07 Dec 2021

Over the past 15 years, the relationship between China and Sri Lanka has come in for heavy criticism from various quarters, with the focus being on the supposed subservience of Sri Lanka and the supposed absolute domination by China. However, it must be said that China has been a partner in the progress of many of Sri Lanka’s major development projects, including in extremely strategically important projects such as the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port, in a manner that no other country has. However, the relationship between China and the rest of the world, particularly the Western World, has been at best rocky and at worst hostile in recent times, with the best examples being its economic trade war and military cold war with US, and its war of words with Australia. While the west, led by the US, has long been concerned about the Belt and Road Initiative, which led to allegations of China trying to increase its trade and military influence in the world, China refusing to support the World Health Organisation (WHO) probes into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic has further tarnished those relationships. Recently, US diplomats decided to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which the White House said was based on China’s human rights record, following which China had, according to foreign media, stated that it would take resolute countermeasures against this boycott. China’s relationships with Sri Lanka’s neighbour and geopolitical rival, India, are probably in its worst state ever. In addition to India-China border issues, in recent times, the US and even Japan have come forward to support India counter China’s influence in the South Asian region in several instances. All this takes place in a context where China’s economy is facing a major decline. According to Chinese officials, China’s economic growth is the biggest challenge that the country is facing in 2022, and in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, financial risks posed by other factors such as the Evergrande crisis and trade relations with the US, are the main reasons for these concerns. It is in such a context that Sri Lanka appears to be slowly walking away from China’s shadow; a development Sri Lankans who were questioning Sri Lanka’s devotion to China may not have expected, and certainly not this early. One of the most recent examples, which is also one of the best examples, is the fertiliser shipment controversy. Sri Lanka imported nano nitrogen fertiliser from India with plans to import more of it, while refusing to accept Chinese-manufactured organic fertiliser, despite having already issued a letter of credit (LC) for the transaction, claiming the said organic fertiliser is harmful to the environment. Just this week, The Morning reported that Sri Lanka is considering revoking a contract for the construction of three hybrid power plants in Jaffna, reneging on a tender which was won by a Chinese firm for that purpose. The reason, according to what has been revealed so far, is the Indian Government offering a 75% grant for the same purpose, which was earlier set to be funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Aside from a handful of international issues in history, such as the matter of Israel and Palestine where Sri Lanka has consistently sided with Palestine, Sri Lanka has always taken a neutral and non-aligned stance as far as openly supporting or criticising the actions of other countries is concerned. Given the economic challenges China is facing, it would not be an exaggeration to say that China’s future appears far less rosy than its recent past has been. However, Sri Lanka distancing itself from China simply because it is navigating an economic crisis and several other international and local challenges is neither smart diplomacy, nor a morally justifiable decision, as it paints Sri Lanka as nothing more than a fair weather friend. This is because China has often defied international expectations. They did this first with its unprecedented economic growth beginning in the late 1970s. Thereafter, in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, China proved wrong the economists and other commentators who predicted its economic boom would come to an end because the rate at which it was growing was not sustainable and had never been maintained by any other country in history. Therefore, it is imperative that Sri Lanka not antagonise or alienate China, and manage the relationship, which is one of our most important, in a tactful, nuanced, and diplomatic manner, while maintaining our healthy relations with India, the US, Europe, and even Russia. If Sri Lanka fails at this juggling act, and if China manages to prove the doomsayers wrong once again and make a roaring comeback from the current setback it is suffering, the Asian giant may remember that Sri Lanka abandoned it during one of its darkest hours. This is problematic for Sri Lanka, as China would then have plenty of interests within the island such as the Port City and the Hambantota Port, and sufficient clout internationally, to remind Sri Lanka that it does not appreciate fair weather friends.

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