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Opinion – China’s Belt and Highway Initiative: Pragmatism over Morals?


Is China beating the US and EU by its pragmatic strategy in direction of cooperation below the “Belt and Highway” Initiative (“一带一路”倡议) (BRI)? Regardless of the arrival of the US’ “Construct Again Higher World” (B3W) and the EU’s “Connecting Europe Globally” (CEG), proof from Sri Lanka means that some international locations nonetheless look to China for assist as a result of ‘no-strings-attached’ nature of its investments. The stark actuality is that China’s “pragmatic values”, mixed with loans, might outcompete the 2 Western initiatives.

The US and EU ahead their initiatives by a give attention to Western values resembling liberalism, democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights – all ethical frameworks which supposedly result in ‘good governance’ (US White Home, 2021; EU Council, 2021; Yan, 2021; Pleeck and Gavas, 2021; Qureshi, 2021). Conversely, the Chinese language Communist Social gathering (CCP) holds that the BRI has pursued a realistic framework of non-interference (respecting sovereignty) and ‘win-win’ (mutual advantages) (FMPRC, 2021A; Ginsburg, 2021). In a nutshell, China claims to satisfy the international locations the place they’re, with investments made in areas or sectors through which they search assist (Li and Vicente, 2020; FMPRC, 2021B; Wang and Cao, 2021: 65). Furthermore, non-interference goes each methods: China stays pragmatic about cooperation and urges different international locations to do the identical, in the end securing mutual political assist in occasions of strife (China Energy, 2017; Dezenski, 2020; Jie and Wallace, 2021). Nonetheless, whereas international locations do profit from Chinese language investments, China arguably stays on the head of the negotiation desk, with its personal pursuits on the fore (Rolland, 2017; China Energy, 2017). However what does this imply in apply?

The Belt and Highway Initiative in Sri Lanka

In recent times, Sri Lanka has been below worldwide scrutiny attributable to (refuted) accusations of Chinese language ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, i.e., that China has tried to extend its financial or political leverage over the nation by extending extreme credit score that Sri Lanka couldn’t repay – the primary instance being the 99-year lease of Hambantota Port to China Retailers Port Holdings Firm (CMPHC) (Jones and Hameiri, 2020).

Nonetheless, the Sino-Sri Lankan relationship is long-established and has solely picked up velocity after the BRI’s announcement. The ties have been already cemented throughout the Sri Lankan civil battle; when the US minimize off support, China offered investments, armaments, and diplomatic assist to the federal government (Marshall, 2009; Sakhuja, 2009). After the battle, when Sri Lanka started investing in infrastructure initiatives to avoid wasting its economic system, China provided different financing versus the IMF and World Financial institution (Ferchen and Perera, 2019; Day by day FT, 2021).

Whereas Beijing has supported the elected governments of Sri Lanka for the reason that civil battle, this assist has been piecemeal and problematic, not least attributable to Sri Lanka’s official coverage of non-alignment and repeatedly shut ties with international locations resembling India (Srinivasan, 2021A; Wignaraja, 2020). Certainly, tensions with the India-leaning Sirisena-Wickremesinghe authorities (2015-2019) proved troublesome to sort out; as India commenced formal visits and proposed giant investments, Chinese language visits have been curtailed. However, China labored onerous to regain its favor and in the end succeeded after Wickremesinghe’s dismissal, when China-friendly Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister (Myers, 2020). By November 25, 2020, China was Sri Lanka’s largest lender, with loans round $923.7 million (Ada Derana Biz, 2020). To enhance investments, Sino-Sri Lankan ties have been furthered in areas resembling tradition below the BRI’s ‘people-to-people bonds’, and ‘pragmatic cooperation’ has been enhanced in order that Sri Lanka might be taught from China’s governance practices (Srinivasan, 2021C).

The Colombo Port Metropolis (CPC) is presently the primary BRI mission in Sri Lanka; with a said goal of elevating the nation to the extent of a ‘small Singapore’, it’s the single largest overseas funding in Sri Lankan historical past with a development price of $1.4 billion (Farzan, 2021; LKI, 2020; CHEC Port Metropolis Colombo, 2021). Nonetheless, associated initiatives train appreciable affect. For instance, the East Container Terminal (ECT) / West Container Terminal (WCT) of Colombo port are central to a dispute between Sri Lanka, India, and Japan (Javaid, 2021). The Sri Lankan authorities unilaterally reneged on the deal for India and Japan to develop the port in February 2021. It was shortly advised by Indian, Japanese, and US’ sources, together with state officers, students, and media, that China had pulled its weight within the port to dam the advance of the 2 Quadrilateral Safety Dialogue (QUAD) international locations (Manoj, 2021; Haidar and Srinivasan, 2021; Singh, 2021). India and Japan in the end accepted Sri Lanka’s deal to develop the WCT as an alternative, however hypothesis on China’s position by no means subsided. Nonetheless, different gamers have had their plans in Sri Lanka foiled too.

The US has tried to counter China’s presence by forwarding strategic cooperation frameworks such because the Standing of Armed Forces Settlement (SOFA), which the Sri Lankan authorities has but to just accept, together with the $480 million Millennium Problem Compact (MCC) Accord, which the US terminated in 2020 attributable to a ‘lack of associate nation engagement’ (Mendis and Reichenbach, 2020; Financial system Subsequent, 2020). Equally, EU funding schemes in Sri Lanka such because the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) have been hit or miss. The nation was excluded from the GSP+ in 2010 as a result of Civil Struggle, however the scheme was reinstated in 2017 (de Silva, 2020). Nonetheless, in June 2021, the European Parliament adopted a decision to briefly withdraw Sri Lanka’s GSP+ standing for the reason that nation has utilized the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to detain critics, activists, and writers. That is set to severely impression Sri Lanka’s economic system, because the EU is its second largest buying and selling associate accounting for greater than 22.4% of Sri Lankan exports in 2020 (ANI Information, 2021; Srinivasan, 2021B).

In the meantime, China has not dialled down its efforts in Sri Lanka. Along with infrastructure initiatives, China has offered financial assist to the nation throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and has donated a big amount of medical tools and vaccines by its ‘masks diplomacy’ (Chandrasena, 2020; Karunatilake and Pal, 2021). These donations got here when Sri Lanka was criticizing the West for turning its again on the nation. Conversely, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to China, Dr. Palitha Kohona, has said that China will stay Sri Lanka’s ‘closest and most reliable good friend’ it doesn’t matter what the West or India says (Rutnam, 2021). Whether or not China’s friendship in Sri Lanka is real or not, one factor is for certain: Xi is an in depth ally to present president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Nonetheless, rising criticism of the CPC together with different BRI initiatives might check this friendship sooner or later (Srinivasan, 2021A; Hundlani and Kannangara, 2020).

The query of human rights

As illustrated, Sri Lanka has change into more and more remoted from the West attributable to its human rights violations throughout the civil battle. Furthermore, below the Rajapaksa authorities, situations have deteriorated; Sri Lankan critics have been surveilled and harassed, and primary human rights for ethnic teams have worsened (UNHRC, 2021B; DeVotta and Ganguly, 2021). However, Beijing has continued to assist (Singh, 2018). China voted in opposition to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) decision on Sri Lanka’s human rights document in March 2021, however the decision nonetheless handed. The Rajapaksa authorities now appears to have rejected the decision, which dangers additional alienating the nation from the West and the worldwide neighborhood (Abeyagoonasekera, 2021).

In return for this assist, Sri Lanka has had China’s again. The federal government has publicly defended the BRI, refuted rumors of debt-trap diplomacy, enhanced navy cooperation, and to date, supported the CPC Financial Fee Invoice which can additional China’s pursuits (Rajagopalan, 2021). The 2 international locations appear to have revered the core pursuits and sovereignty of their counterparts whereas backing one another in worldwide controversies. This mutual, unconditional assist – forwarded below the discourse of pragmatic cooperation – has ensured China’s place within the nation.

Time will inform whether or not Sri Lanka continues to depend on China for investments, or whether or not it is going to handle its human rights points and switch to different nations for assist. Presently, the latter appears uncertain. Sri Lanka’s tilt in direction of Chinese language pragmatic values will thus be on the expense of the Tamil inhabitants, human rights defenders, and journalists (Amnesty Worldwide, 2021).

Cash over morals?

Whereas we can not generalize primarily based on the case of Sri Lanka, it does level to a bigger development in BRI cooperation. Nations with problematic human rights reputations, resembling Afghanistan (UNHRC, 2021A; Marsden, 2021) and Pakistan (HRW, 2021; Sacks, 2021), appear to favor China’s pragmatic strategy and can doubtless proceed to take action. Different international locations struggling to uphold human rights and determined for investments – growing or developed – might additionally probably select China as their associate (Faiz, 2019).

Subsequently, the US and EU might have overestimated the facility of Western values versus these related to Chinese language investments below the BRI. Even with the identical sum of money for investments, China has a transparent benefit: it doesn’t impose conditionalities for support, at the very least not just like the West does (Dezenski, 2020). As seen in Sri Lanka, it’s not a query of cash or morals – it’s a query of cash with out morals. Consequently, the B3W and the CEG will battle to compete with China if the main target stays on forwarding infrastructure with Western values. For years, China has been cooperating with international locations that the West wouldn’t take into account attributable to their political programs or human rights approaches, and it has strengthened its personal bi- and multilateral place by a give attention to credibility and assuaging fears of the ‘China menace’. Subsequently, regardless of criticism, the BRI – and the pragmatic values related to Chinese language investments – are unlikely to lose reputation any time quickly.


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