Sri Lanka Clears Major Hurdle For China’s Silk oute Project

COLOMBO (IDN) – The signing of a deal between the Sri Lankan government and a Chinese company, basically transferring the ownership on a 99-year lease of the strategically located Chinese-built Hambantota Port and 5,000 acres of land surrounding it for an industrial park in southern Sri Lanka has cleared a major hurdle for China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Route project while at the same time raising concerns about security and sovereignty issues.

The government-owned Sri Lankan Port Authority has signed a 1.1 billion dollar deal agreeing to sell a 70 percent stake in the Hambantota port to China’s state-run conglomerate China Merchants Port Holdings. The Cabinet approved the deal on July 25 and the government signed it at a ceremony opened to the media on July 29.

Through this deal, China gains control of a stretch of land surrounding the port, which is larger than that of Vatican City or Monaco and almost same as Macau, which China leased to Portugal in 1557 as a trading post and later became a colony until 1999.

Some concern has been expressed in Sri Lanka and elsewhere about whether China is using its financial muscle in a way similar to European states during the heydays of their colonial conquests.

However, gaining access to ports around the Indian Ocean and creating economic activities around it to benefit local economies is crucial to China’s ambitious project to create modern versions of the ancient trade routes on land and sea across Asia into Central Asia, the Arab world and Europe which Chinese President Xi Jingping has described as bringing prosperity especially to Asia, while its critics, especially in India, Japan, Australia and the United States, claims is about China consolidating its economic might in the Asian region in particular.

The ancient Silk Routes did not involve occupation of land, enslavement of people and other forms of colonial conquests as European commerce did. These were mainly peaceful trading and cultural exchanges where people were able to trade in each other’s goods and share cultures and philosophical ideas.

The Hambantota port was constructed six years ago along with an adjoining international airport and a four-lane highway linking the city to the capital 240 km away at a cost of some 360 million dollars, most of the money borrowed from the Export-Import Bank of China.

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