Just days after Sri Lanka moved closer to allowing China to develop a port city just less than 300 kilometers from Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India, the communist country gifted the island nation 5 lakh doses of anti-Covid-19 vaccines.
Beijing last month also inked an agreement with Colombo, committing a $500-million loan for Sri Lanka to help it revive its economy that was hit hard by the pandemic. It was a follow-up to a loan of equal amount China had given Sri Lanka in March 2020. China had also agreed on a $1.5-billion currency swap arrangement with Sri Lanka a couple of months back.
With the economic crisis and the devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic forcing India to slow down its outreach to Sri Lanka, China has gone full steam ahead to expand its footprints in the Indian Ocean nation. What particularly caused unease in New Delhi is the recent approval of the Sri Lankan Parliament to a Bill to set up a panel, which would govern the Colombo Port City developed by China Harbour Engineering Company. The government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa got the bill passed even as the Opposition parties expressed apprehension that it might undermine the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. The new law clears the way for the CHEC – a unit of China Communications Construction Company – to develop the port city on 269 hectares of land reclaimed from the ocean as a Special Economic Zone. The CHEC already invested $1.4 billion for reclamation of land from ocean and for building infrastructure
New Delhi is worried as it anticipates that the CHEC Port City Colombo could eventually be turned into an overseas colony of China, sources told the DH. The communist country stepped up its effort to acquire or build strategic assets in the Indian Ocean region as well as in Bangladesh and Nepal, particularly during the past 12 months, which saw the relations between New Delhi and Beijing hit a new low over the stand-off between the Indian Army and Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh.
India’s concerns over China’s bid to expand its geopolitical influence over Sri Lanka are also shared by other members of the ‘Quad’ – Japan, Australia, and the United States, sources in New Delhi said.
China’s debt-trap diplomacy already succeeded in making Sri Lanka giving it the Hambantota Port on a lease for 99 years.
Sri Lanka a few months back scrapped a trilateral deal with India and Japan to develop the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port. It later awarded the contract to develop the West Container Terminal to the Adani Group of India.
New Delhi extended a $400-million currency swap facility to Sri Lanka in July 2020 to help its economy recover from the Covid-19 crisis. The negotiation for another $1-billion currency swap arrangement, however, failed to make much headway so far. The discussion between New Delhi and Colombo for a deal to allow Sri Lanka to delay repayment of debt to India also did not make much progress. Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government’s outreach to other nations in the neighbourhood was stymied by economic constraints and the second Covid-19 wave that wreaked havoc across India.
India supplied 5 lakh vaccines to Sri Lanka by the end of January 2021. But a shortage of doses forced it to suspend its ‘Vaccine-Maitri’ initiative of providing jabs to other nations.