Tale of A Port City and A Potential Proxy War on Sri Lanka’s Turf


by David Soysa

The people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and Yemen continue to pay a heavy price for allowing their countries to be used for proxy wars by a few powerful countries to protect their national interests. Millions of civilians are killed, and billions of dollars are spent on arms, in a deadly contest for power by a few world powers. U.N. Charter and international laws are violated while the world referee, the UN Secy. General, instead of raising the red flag against the bullies appeals to the world community for billions of dollars to help the refugees. It is through this deadly spectacle Sri Lankans should watch whether China, India and America (C.I.A] are planning to play the deadly sport on our turf.

China to protect its national interests has been making several strategic moves in South Asia, ever since America began to challenge her emergence as a super power. They include the construction of several ports in Sri Lanka (Hambantota) Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar branded by the Pentagon as the String of Pearls [S.O.P] Maritime Silk Route, and the most controversial Port City off Colombo. While Hambantota port is like the pendant of S.O.P, the Port City which figures into Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Route expansion strategy could become its crown.

President Obama to protect America’s interests shifted his foreign policy focus from the Middle East to Asia, with his pivot to Asia policy. China instantly described it as the forerunner of an ultimate showdown, designed to keep China permanently in a secondary position. Hence China’s instinct is to build its capability; to resist America’s moves to contain China. The unprecedented projection of China’s military might on Sept. 2, 2015, to commemorate the defeat of Japan in 1945, was clearly designed to send a clear message to both America and Japan. While America is fighting proxy wars in the Middle East and Asia, China is building a "Walled World" in Asia, Africa and Latin America, using its "brick by brick" soft power, like BRICS, AIIB, Maritime Silk Route, Silk Road, S.C.O and Economic Corridor to Pakistan from China.

Strategic imperatives create strange bedfellows. Just as China made friendship with ‘distant barbarians’ - or Americans, when the Soviet Union threatened China during 1955 to 80; India is now America’s strategic ally in the joint effort to contain China. To India, China is the peer competitor. Our strategists however have to realize that both China and America are indispensable pillars to maintain peace in South Asia. After our January 2015 liberation, America is redoubling its efforts to peel Sri Lanka from China. Washington Post of Aug. 16, 2015 asked in a headline, "Can Sri Lanka’s new government break free from China?" The report adds "The new government is re-balancing the foreign policy away from Rajapaksa’s closest ally China, toward India and the West, putting massive Chinese Port City on hold." Henry Kissinger in his latest book, International Order states, "according to a Harvard study, in 15 cases in history, where a rising power and an established power interacted 10 ended in war". [Page 228] Our own strategists [if there are any!] should therefore ask the one billion dollar question, "will the $1.4 billion Port City, make Sri Lanka a proxy battle ground, in a military conflict between China and America+India?"

In the nuclear age, no nuclear power dares to attack another, fearing retaliation in kind. Thus during the cold war, Washington and Moscow challenged each other through proxy wars, observes Kissinger. Such wars were fought in Inchon, Vietnam, Luanda, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Today such wars are fought in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen.

China has been Sri Lanka’s most generous, all weather ally even before diplomatic relations were established post-1956. Despite strong opposition by the U.S the Rubber Rice Pact of the early fifties gave us a premium price for our rubber and rice at less than world market prices. In the 1960’s China defended Sri Lanka at U.N. Security Council using her veto powers when Western powers attempted to move Resolutions against Sri Lanka. Above all China helped to defeat LTTE terrorists by supplying arms –all on credit –and to build the infrastructure after the war. Does China now expect reciprocity from Sri Lanka, for Chinas exceptional generosity?

President Xi Jinpin during his visit to Sri Lanka in 2014 signed several Agreements, including the Agreement on Plan of Action to Deepen the Strategic Co-Operation Partnership. Sri Lanka is also a Dialogue Partner in the powerful Shanghai Co Operation Organisation (S.C.O) which is a potential rival to NATO. President Xi announced his Maritime Silk Route plan during his visit to Sri Lanka. While Rajapaksa embraced it immediately, the Prime Minister of India responded with his Mausam plan as an alternative. China plans Colombo to be a major lynchpin in her Maritime Silk Route strategy. Partnerships cannot be achieved by proclamations only. Specific steps in that direction are necessary. PCP is such a step. Is Port City also designed to confront India and America away from the explosive South China Sea’s boiling waters?

The unsolicited Port City Project [PCP] conceived by a local company was abandoned due to cost. Like Manna from heaven, the plan fell on the lap of Chinese strategists seeking to establish a foothold in South Asia. One of the hottest buzz words in China’s Foreign policy circles is "ruan quanli", or soft power, defined as the ability to get others to want what you want. Accordingly Rajapaksa regime was made to feel the need for a Port City. The plan was approved by the cabinet in 2014. In Sep 2014 Ministry of Roads, Ports and Shipping, signed the Agreement with China’s state owned Communications and Construction Company. Its affiliated Company, China Harbour and Engineering Company [CHEC] was entrusted to construct the Port City. China agreed to meet the cost of $ 1.4 billion in return for one third the land to be reclaimed.

The plan is to create an artificial island of 575.7 acres on land to be reclaimed from the sea off Galle Face Green.266 acres are to be given China - 50 acres on freehold ownership for ever and 217 acres on a 99-year lease. The government will get only 153 acres for commercial purposes. The Chinese satellite city will also be entitled to 12 miles of sea as territorial waters and 200 miles as economic zone, from the base line, in terms of the Law of the Sea Convention, ratified by Sri Lanka and China. China may also increase its land area, by filling the territorial sea, as China is doing in South China Sea islands, to build air strips.

The satellite city will no doubt create a geo- political reality in South Asia that has never existed before .To the supporters of Port City it may look non – controversial with no evidence of imperial or neo colonial ambitions of China. To the outsmarted and outraged India and America, the project presents a most serious confrontational challenge to their dominance in South Asia. To Sri Lanka heavily indebted to China financially [$4. 5 billion] and politically and with no role to play in the C.I.A power play, P.C.P has become a time bomb with zero options.

The one billion dollar question is, ‘why does China want the P.C.P?’ Is it to find additional space for Chinas 1.3 billion people? Or to earn a return on the investment to be added to its $4 trillion reserves? If not, is it to have a permanent foothold in Sri Lanka, which as the Washington Post reported [on 16.8.15 ] is strategically located to figure into China’s Silk Route extension strategy in to the Indian Ocean.

President Sirisena during his visit to China had expressed his concern about India’s protest to Port City. President Xi had responded by proposing to give a few acres to India in the Port City and that China, Sri Lanka and India should work together. Both had agreed that India should be part of the equation. However Xi had expressed the hope that Sri Lanka would ensure the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises. Clearly China does not want war over Port City, but is determined to build its satellite city off Colombo to protect its interests. India however had conveyed to Gotabhaya that the Port City is a threat to India’s security and must be stopped.

Judging by Chinas aggressiveness in the South China Sea Islands dispute, unprecedented display of China’s military might amid worsening tensions between China and U.S it is realistic to expect the following scenario in the Port City. China’s 266 acre territory will be occupied by Chinese nationals only, living in high rise buildings which can accommodate more than the population of Jaffna. The colony will be governed from Beijing as one of its administrative regions like Hong Kong or Macao. It will have its own police, border control, customs, Immigration authorities etc. Its currency could be the Yuan and the official language Mandarin. With a naval base, it could be the home port for China’s naval fleet in the Indian Ocean, like Crimea for the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean, the U.S. too built an air base in Diego Garcia not far from Sri Lanka after chasing away the entire population.

China Harbour and Engineering Co. {CHEC} has announced its plans to invite foreign investors to the Port City on their terms. What will be the status of the colony, in its relations with the Sri Lanka Government or even foreign countries and U.N?

Critics of this worst case scenario may dismiss such fears as exaggerated, but remember when Pres. Rajapaksa went to open the South Port, the Chinese manager of the Chinese container terminal in the south port, did not permit Sri Lanka’s flag to be flown or our national anthem to be played there.

There is no doubt that PCP is running up against India’s and America’s strategic interests in the region. All the three C.I.A powers are manouevering for maximum advantage in their power play, on the basis of their national interests.

While President Xi emphasized Chinas policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, in an address at the Conference on Confidence Building Measures in Asia on 21 May 2014, CHEC has begun to violate Chinas policy. In the long history of Sri Lanka’s relations with China, only on one occasion China interfered when the famous Admiral Zheng He’s expeditionary forces took Raigama King Alagakkonara to China to be presented to the Emperor as a prisoner. The Emperor sent him back to Sri Lanka safely. CHEC forgetting all this, has begun to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. An expensive poster campaign claiming Port City is a symbol of development was carried out in Colombo recently. Secondly CHEC participated actively in the Chinese idea of ‘brick by brick’ campaign, of a local company on reconciliation. Thirdly, Christian Solidarity movement is protesting against the involvement of World Bank blacklisted notorious CHEC in the restoration of the old Tewatte Basilica of our Lady of Lanka. China however does not have even diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Hence, in the absence of full information on the secret Agreement Rajapaksa had signed with China, even a public debate risk being driven less by reasoned arguments than by the propaganda of CHEC and their local supporters who stand to gain from contracts from the billion dollar project.

Until the Port City was launched there was something approaching a balance of power in South Asia. Port City has begun to disturb that equilibrium. When Kissinger met Chou En Lai during his secret visit to Beijing in July 1971 ,Chou combining the Chinese Emperor’s claim to divine power to rule all under heaven and Mao’s thoughts, had said "all under heaven is in chaos, the situation is excellent ‘’. The message is China would emerge triumphant in a world of chaos. Is that the goal of China to create chaos in South Asia, with MSR and PCP for China to come on top?

Just as the invasion of Crimea by Russia led to the proxy war in Ukraine, the creation of a Chinese colony, off Colombo, has the potential for a proxy war involving China India and America. Yet Sri Lanka cannot wish away the project [13% completed] to protect our national interests calculations or seek refuge under international law. The Agreement Rajapaksa signed with China may be legally void, but a legal approach to break free from the project will be as futile as Ukraine’s fight to regain Crimea. President Xi expects Sri Lanka to honour the legitimate rights of Chinese enterprises in Sri Lanka. And Sri Lanka cannot afford to lose China’s friendship for the sake of ‘good weather friends.’ Bi-Lateral Agreements between two Governments should provide for resolution of disputes. Does the secret Agreement Rajapaksa signed with China provide for such resolution? If not Sri Lanka has only one option - a diplomatic solution.

A thorough scientific study by a group of experts, particularly on environment, marine life, archaeology; shipping, security, has to be made before seeking Chinas willingness to hold bilateral talks. Those who prepared the eye washing E.I.A reports and coast conservation officials who gave the approval for the project (perhaps while white vans were at the gates) should be excluded.

President Xi Jinping addressing a meeting on Asian security and co-operation on 21 May 2015 expressed the preference to "address differences and disputes through consultation and negotiation." He even proposed a code of conduct for regional security; as a bargaining chip Sri Lanka may have to offer an alternative site (which E.I.A report has failed to do devoid of the impacts Port City attracts).

The Foreign Ministry should take the initiative and provide the facilities for the group. A distinguished person like Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala with U.N credentials should lead the team to negotiate with the Chinese team in Beijing. Wise statesmanship must try to find a mutually acceptable solution. For outside it disaster beckons.


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