by Wade Shepard
Courtesy: The Forbes.
This area includes what is probably the world’s emptiest international airport, a massive $1.4 billion deep sea port that is running at under-capacity, a world-class conference center that doesn’t really host many conferences, and a seldom used cricket stadium. These projects were almost completely funded with Chinese money, and helped bury Sri Lanka $8 billion deep in debt to China.
China just requested 15,000 acres of land in southern Sri Lanka for the creation of a special economic zone that will reputedly create one million jobs, according to the country’s Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade.
15,000 acres is roughly 60 square kilometers, which is significantly larger than Hartford, Connecticut or Providence, Rhode Island.
This expanse of land, if granted, will be in the Hambantota region, which has been a punchline of sorts over the past couple of years in Sri Lanka due to its massive and expensive infrastructure projects that have so far failed to come to fruition. This area includes what is probably the world’s emptiest international airport, a massive $1.4 billion deep sea port that is running at under-capacity, a world-class conference center that doesn’t really host many conferences, and a seldom used cricket stadium. These projects were almost completely funded with Chinese money, and helped bury Sri Lanka $8 billion deep in debt to China.
It was once the dream of Sri Lanka’s former president to turn Hambantota, his extremely rural hometown, into the country’s number two city, and he spared no expense trying to make this happen. When he unexpectedly lost the election in 2015 to Maithripala Sirisena, who ran on a platform which accused the incumbent of being too favorable to China and trashing relations with India and the West, many big Chinese-invested projects were called off. Construction on the Hambantota deep sea port was halted and SriLankan Airline’s hub at Mattala International Airport was liquidated, as Hambantota proverbially ground to a halt.
However, once relations with India and the West were “re-balanced” — which meant that the UN went easy on its war crimes charges, the EU reinstated GSP-Plus trade concessions, and the United States began delivering aid once again, among other things — China was put back on the front burner and the country’s big developments in Sri Lanka began rolling once again.
Now, relations between Sri Lanka and China appear to be booming, and the Hambantota dream is looking to be moving closer to a reality. Phase II of the deep sea port is now being constructed, the Mattala airport is looking for private investors, and the SEZ, if actually created, could potentially provide the synergy to pull it all together.
Like many other countries along the Belt and Road, such as Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Serbia, Sri Lanka is engaging in a multi-vector policy where it attempts to be friendly with all global powers rather than showing a preference to any one in particular. To these ends, the country is concurrently negotiating a free trade agreement with China along with other big trade deals with India and Singapore.
Sri Lanka is scheduled to release a long-awaited National Trade Policy at the end of August, whereupon the world will see where its allegiances currently lie.
The writer is the author of Ghost Cities of China. I’m currentlytravelling the New Silk Road doing research for a new book. He is a contributor to the Forbes where this piece first appeared.
Originally published in The Sri Lanka Guardian.