Napoleon’s remarks – “China is a sleeping giant. Let him sleep. For when he wakes up he will move the world” – has achieved a new lease of life in the context of China’s extraordinary progress and its commercial and business ventures of billions of dollars abroad. In a bid to secure strategically vital areas, Beijing is coming up with lavish projects at home and abroad primarily to complement its unprecedented growth. Likewise, China went ahead with further consolidating its foothold in the significant Indian Ocean region after concluding the deal with Sri Lanka’s coalition government to resume work to build the vast ‘port city’ in the Island’s capital, Colombo. The project has been much talked about with criticism, suspension and resumption going along the way.
The project was initiated by the regime of Mahindra Rajapakse after signing different agreements in 2014 by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), Board of Investment and Urban Development Authority (UDA) with China. The project is multifaceted with aim to develop a major maritime hub as well as to create a harbor city for attracting private investors, to bolster tourism and make Colombo a financial hub connecting South Asia to Middle East and South East Asia.
The Colombo Port City (CPC) is a project planned as an offshore city in Colombo, Sri Lanka which is to be built on a reclaimed land in the immediate vicinity of Galle Face Green. This entails that the sand will be unearthed off the bottom of the sea and used to create an artificial extension to Colombo on which the Port city will be erected. The Port city will be located in the shadow of Colombo South Port breakwater. According to the details of the project, the reclaimed land would be accompanied by the construction of a Formula 1 racing track, yacht marina, a mini golf course, hotels, sky scrapers, shopping malls and apartment residencies. The overall configuration of the lavish project demonstrates that it aims to cater the ultra-rich from across the world.
The proposal for the project was submitted by China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) which is the main contractor based in Colombo and a partner of Chinese government owned China Communication Cooperation Co. Ltd (CCCC). The project of worth $1.4bn represents the biggest single foreign investment ever received by Sri Lanka and is expected to be completed in 25 years. The land area that will be reclaimed is estimated to be 233 hectares. The first phase of the project is reclamation of the land after which it will be divided between two countries with Sri Lanka’s share of land to be 125 hectares and China’s 108 which consists of 20 hectares of land under outright ownership and 98 hectares on a 99 year lease.
Ever since the project has been put on table, series of issues have surrounded it. It has been stated that the project was initially proposed by the UNP government in 2004. Now during his election campaign, the now Prime Minister and leader of the UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe had told the tourism industry that the project is environmentally unviable and would end up destroying coastal belt from Negombo and Beruwala. The project however is again on the forefront under the purview of Sirisena-Wickermesinghe government when the Prime Minister announced on the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015 that the Port City Project as well as other Chinese funded projects will carry on as planned under the previous regime.
Social activists argue that the lavish project is likely to benefit only a handful of people primarily the cosmopolitan group of foreigners and wealthy locals as well as the expatriates who will be isolated from the majority of common people from the mainland. Likewise many are critical of the long-term benefits the project will accrue for ordinary Sri Lankans apart from the short-term such as employment opportunities in the hotels, shopping malls etc. It is feared that the project will have negative socio-economic impacts on the communities engaged in fishing resulting in their displacement. Environmentalists have also raised hue and cry regarding the project. Comparisons have been drawn with Dubai’s Palm Islands, the artificial islands built by using sand dredged from the bottom of the sea. The iconic project of UAE came under criticism by environment protection NGOs which stated it destroyed formation of the natural corals thus having adverse impacts on the ecosystem.
On the other hand according to the recent report published by Sri Lanka’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) the sand extraction will be carried out at depths of 15m or more thereby causing no coastal degradation. EIA further highlights that all necessary provisions will be undertaken to address the concerns regarding the project to make it socially, economically and ecologically viable. However to what extent the concerns will be mitigated is yet to be seen.
Chinese interest in the Colombo Port City project can be comprehended in terms of China’s geo-political ambitions primarily concerning the Indian Ocean region and to forward China’s commercial interest. The location of Sri Lanka offers a unique advantage to China to further fortify its position in Indian Ocean. CPC is located close to region’s vital shipping routes as well as adjacent to region’s another emerging power and Beijing’s competitor, India. Also, CPC is near to Africa and the Middle east where again China has long-term strategic interests since it is dependent on these areas for energy and natural resources. The green light for the project highlights President Xi’s aim to secure access to a network of installations in the strategically vital Indian Ocean. The move can also be viewed in terms of Beijing’s larger geo-political gambit dubbed as ‘One Belt One Road’, part of which is the plan for the construction of ‘Maritime Silk Road’ to develop network of commercial port facilities in Indian Ocean intended to connect it with China. Also, while being the second largest economy as well as having world’s largest foreign reserves; CPC is beneficial for China since it is likely to advance Beijing’s commercial interest in the fast developing region with long-term presence there.
China has been Sri Lanka’s major investor especially during Mahindra Rajapakse’s regime largely to the dismay of its neighbor India. Conversely the incumbent government tried to reverse the course of its Pro-China foreign policy with an aim to strike a balance between India and China. While India has exhibited no angst over the extravagant project, the competing state is certainly concerned about China’s ambitious ‘Maritime Silk Route’ project which it considers to be a strategy of encirclement intended to limit India’s growing influence in the region. The recent move of Sirisena’s government to give a green light to the project however highlights the importance Sri Lanka is giving to massive foreign funded developmental project. After resuming the project, the government stated that CPC was not cancelled but suspended to review the concerns raised regarding its feasibility which have now been addressed.
It will not be wrong to mention that China is very briskly maneuvering all the available options to exhibit its power and influence in its immediate vicinity with the aim to protect its vital interests in strategically important areas. It is in this context the Colombo Port City project must be viewed and analyzed. The project is likely to benefit Sri Lanka economically increasing foreign direct investment and transforming island’s capital. But the concerns raised about the viability of the project have only been met with promises on paper, the expediency of which is yet to be seen. Conversely for China, the project is more than an overseas commercial venture. It is indeed geo-politically significant for China and a step forward to enhance its clout in the region and beyond.
is a Career Diplomat (44th Common) at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Pakistan. She has an MPhil in International Relations from Kinnaird College Lahore.