April 23, 2018

Along the road – Sri Lanka’s tale of two ports


18 April 2018


Plamen Tonchev

In December 2017, Sri Lanka formally handed over the southern sea port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease. It is not unique: another megaproject, known as the Colombo Port City, is currently underway in Sri Lanka’s capital, and a large part of the area is also subject to a 99-year lease held by a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE).

These two cases are crucial parts of a network of important access points in the Indian Ocean acquired by China, which help it avoid the Strait of Malacca – identified as a strategic chokepoint by former President Hu Jintao back in 2003. In addition to China’s dependence on maritime trade, access to the Indian Ocean without having to go through the Strait links China’s landlocked western provinces to a network of supply routes for strategically important commodities, and shaves off thousands of miles of travel at sea. This is the main reason for the ever-growing Chinese presence on the shores of the Indian Ocean, including in Sri Lanka, as part of its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

*This Brief is the first publication in the EUISS series ‘Along the road’, which will examine the security implications of China’s BRI. Through a collection of case studies from infrastructure projects and countries situated 'along the road', this series will seek to gather concrete evidence of the success or failure of Beijing’s new geopolitical project*

🔴 *Download*


The two ports of Colombo and Hambantota exemplify important aspects of China’s under-standing of connectivity, both in terms of content and modalities. There is a pronounced focus on infrastructure along BRI routes, with a view to supply chains of strategic importance to Beijing. It is becoming increasingly clear that in the Indian Ocean, China is implementing a comprehensive plan that merges energy secu- rity, trade, manufacturing and financial ser-vices on a regional, if not global, scale. In addition, it appears that the infrastructure built or acquired by China is of potential dual use, with a strong in-built security component, as illustrated by the recorded presence of Chinese military vessels in Sri Lanka (and elsewhere).

This is inevitably causing an exacerbation of re- gional rivalries in what is rapidly turning into a ‘Sino-Indian Ocean’.With regard to modalities, environmental sus-tainability does not seem to be a top priority for Chinese corporations, and it is only through pressure that they are likely to comply with rel-evant requirements. However, the most striking feature of the Sri Lanka case is the imposition of China’s terms that are hardly in line with the much-trumpeted ‘win-win’ rhetoric of Beijing.

The debt trap Sri Lanka has found itself in may well provide some useful lessons learned. On the one hand, infrastructure development in the region may come at a cost to national sovereignty and independence. On the other hand, China seems to be replicating in Sri Lanka and across the region what it has always viewed as a major source of humiliation – the 99-year lease of Hong Kong to the UK between 1898 and 1997. Ironically, China’s interpretation of ‘connectivity’ in the Indian Ocean bears some odd similarities with the colonial practices that Beijing has traditionally denounced.

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