resident Maithripala Sirisena has been invited for a second official visit to China, says Government Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe.
The timing of the invitation, which came after the President’s visit to Japan, as a guest Head of State at the G 7 summit is interesting. China and Japan haven’t been in best terms recently, worse, still under the administration of the President’s Japanese host, Nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants Japan to play a more muscular role in the world stage, amended the Japanese Constitution to enable sending troops abroad,and more than anything else, has taken China head on over the latter’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. Premier Abe is also revising Japan’s war time history to the dismay of many of its neighbours, including China, who were the victims of the blood lust of Japanese imperial army.
So there is a bit of major power competition for influence in the welcome extended to the Sri Lankan President by both Capitals. That element of influence paddling is starkly evident in the other non-G7 leader, the President of Vietnam Tran Dai Quang, who was invited alongside President Sirisena by Prime Minister Abe. The Vietnamese Communist apparatchik do not see eye to eye with their ideological bedfellows in the Great Hall of the Peoples in Tienanmen. That place also invoked memories last week for a different reason: a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators there on June 5, 1989. The relations between Vietnam and its larger neighbour have strained due to China’s claims over South China Sea, tilting Vietnam into the fold of the USA. President Obama visited Ho Chi Min City last week and removed the last vestige of an arms embargo.
In 2014, when Premier Abe visited South Asia, including Sri Lanka, President Xi Jinping followed up with a larger delegation and more trade and investment deals.
Since we are not in the contested region, the best we could do is to enjoy our two seconds of fame with big powers.
All that is taking place as China has made a comeback as a major lender and a development partner. Some of the large-scale Chinese funded projects are earmarked for the President’s constituency, Polonnaruwa. The Colombo Port City has been given the green light and last week, Shangri-la, the
Hong Kong-listed hotel chain opened its 300 room resort in Hambantota. During the presidential elections and its immediate aftermath, it became fashionable to lambast China as the source of all evils of the former regime. Now, in hindsight, all that appears to be a petty and short- sighted political stunt, which Sri Lankans are well accustomed to. That the potential damage was repaired without much ado was in our interest. But, there are still marginal elements who view that as a betrayal of the promise of Yahapalanaya. Those are the liberal’s equivalent to their counterparts in the other extreme end, who live in their own convoluted worlds. Chinese development assistance in the past might not have been utilized for the optimum advantage of the country by the former regime, of which some of the investment decisions, such as building an airport in the name of ex-president in the jungle is nothing but a criminal misappropriation of public funds. The problem was with the former regime, rather than with the lender.
Nor would the on-going projects such as Colombo Port City please everybody, in the same way many thousands decried Free Trade Zones as sweat shops when they were first launched three-and-a-half decades ago. There was also a period in the recent history of our part of the world, during which even the free market and free enterprises were seen as evil and vestige of imperialism. We are still paying for the lost decades consumed by those myopic fallacies.
China as a development partner is indispensable. No other country has such a hefty load of cash available for investment and a government that could dictate investment decisions of its cash rich State-owned firms. Peddling all other peripheral garbage, ranging from environment to relocation of squatters do not supplant the urgency that Sri Lanka is faced with all too important infrastructure development. Mahinda Rajapaksa was right to realize that sense of urgency. His problem was he wasted those limited resources in his vanity projects.
Now, there is another kind of urgency. The Chinese economy is not in the best of its time. Its growth has plummeted and the economic slow- down has now been contained by a fresh injection of public debt in to investment, which many economists consider as a risky gamble. China’s public debt has ballooned from 150% of GDP in 2009 to 230 per cent in 2015. Many analysts, including those in the ruling circles are worried about China’s soaring public debt, which could explode on one fateful day sending shock waves across the globe. China’s slowing growth has already inflicted heavy pain on commodity economies across the world from Brazil to Angola, the former is now in recession.
Sri Lanka should try to benefit from China’s largesse, when it can, rather than arguing over issues which better suited to be deliberated at NGO cocktail parties.
"China as a development partner is indispensable. No other country has such a hefty load of cash available for investment and a government that could dictate investment decisions of its cash rich State-owned firms"
The problem with the former regime was not that it was having good relations with China, so did every government in the past. Rather the autocratic conduct of the former regime led the other traditional friends of Sri Lanka to shun us. Finally, Sri Lanka was made dependent on China for everything, from loans to support at the UNHCR.
Now that the current administration has mended ties with the West, that dependency on China has been reduced. However, that should not be a reason to bite the hand that fed us in our difficult hour. Rather, it should provide us with space to deal with China in a more even-footing.
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