For smaller Asian countries it is no surprise that China has emerged in the last decade as an essential trading partner, Sri Lanka is no exception: becoming it’s largest foreign finance partner in 2010, overtaking India and Japan, and as its third largest trading partner (bilateral trade was $3.62 billion in 2013). For China, Sri Lanka is a crucial gateway port providing it with a foothold near sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and entry into what India considers its sphere of influence. The longer term aim being to access and secure crucial oil exports from Iran and the Middle East.
Utilizing development loans of nearly 5bn USD from China over the last 5 years Sri lanka has heavily invested in numerous infrastructure projects to boost its rapidly growing services sector: China is currently financing more than 85 percent of the Hambantota Development Zone, to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery and other facilities. Simultaneously the development of the Pakistani port of Gwadar which is to be run exclusively by China, provides an indication of Beijing fast growing influence in the Indian Ocean.
China’s influence is now firmly embedded in Sri Lanka — economically as well as geopolitically: the docking in Colombo last year of a Chinese submarine certainly would have raised a few eyebrows in Delhi and forced India into a re-assessment of its relationship with Sri Lanka. However the new Government of President Maithripala Sirisena might just take a step back to re-asses it`s continued love of Chinese financing.
Current Chinese invested development projects:
$1.5 billion port project in the southern coastal town of Hambantota being built by China Communications Construction Co.Ltd. It has the potential of being developed as the deepest and largest harbour in the world, with a location just half an hour off the world s busiest sea-lane which is used by 100 - 200 ships a day.
Sri Lanka`s 2nd International airport in Mattala has facilitated numerous direct flights between China and other Asian cities.
The Colombo Lotus Tower, being built by CEIEC and funded by Exim Bank of China, which will be the tallest tower in South Asia.
The $1.2 billion Lakvijaya coal power plant in the northwestern town of Norochcholai being constructed by China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CMEC), with a planned ultimate capacity of 900 megawatts. Once on-line it is estimated electricity costs will fall from the current RS/11 to RS/5.
China and Chinese firms are actively participating in development of Sri Lanaka's highways and expressways, mostly funded by Exim Bank of China and built by China Metallurgical Group Corporation.
(Colombo International deep water Container Terminal, completed in 2013 by China Merchants Holdings International).
The question now is how far the new Sirisena government will be willing or even able to go in addressing concerns about Chinas influence in Sri Lanka that he was vocal about prior to the elections. Whilst the growth of China`s influence may well slow, the new government must also see that nurturing equal relations with all regional powers and in particular India, is in its best interests. The country still needs significant development loans to continue its infrastructure development and attain its 7.4% growth target for 2014. However further loans from China, at rates far above those from the Asian Development Bank or countries like Japan, seem to be off the agenda for now. Interest payments now currently amount to 75% of GDP according to Moody`s, creating a significant debt servicing burden.
China is actively pursuing mutually beneficial relationships throughout Asia and supporting these with infrastructure, loans and joint ventures. With a FTA (free trade agreement) due to be signed into force later this year, Sri Lanka will continue to benefit from its relationship with Beijing, however a reassessment of the long term benefits and costs is certainly underway. It is now very much up to India to turn the political change in Colombo to it`s advantage.