As Japan enters into fray, China persists for edge over Lanka

As Japan enters into fray, China persists for edge over Lanka

Colombo Correspondent,
Hambantota Port Administration Building, Sri Lanka.

China seemingly having got both feet quite firmly planted, on Sri Lankan ground, has awakened other competitors but indications are clear that China has a long-term vision for its strategy of being omnipresent in the island nation. It is now charting its course in the North of Sri Lanka, following two interesting pursuits; planning to build houses for the Northern Tamil war affected and sending its archeologists to study ancient ports in the Northern district of Jaffna and to look for ancient ceramic ware and have employed a team of archeologists from the Shanghai museum alongside a researcher on old Chinese ceramics. Having clinched the controversial 99 year lease on the Southern Hambantota port the latest Chinese fancy (currently only archeologically) is the Kappalthurai and Alaipitty ancient ports in the war scarred Jaffna district.

Quite interestingly but not very surprisingly Chinese interest on learning about the ancient port city that existed centuries ago in Jaffna comes alongside India wanting to develop the port area in the northern capital and transform the Palaly airfield, currently operated by the Lankan military, into an airport for regional civilian flights. Despite Japan and India looking to upstage China or be con-currently present where the Chinese footprint is in Lanka, it does look like China, having entered the Lankan scene during the Rajapaksa era around ten years ago is likely to have a firm footing in Sri Lanka that would be hard to dislodge.

Japanmeanwhile is having a rather late reaction in wanting to do something concrete to try and upstage Chinese expansion in Sri Lanka. On the heels of the recently concluded visit of the Japanese Defence Minister, Itsunori Onodera to Sri Lanka, the Embassy of Japan in Colombo announced the visit of Kazuyuki Nakane, State Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan who embarked on a two-day visit to the island from 28 to 30 August. Nakane will be participating in the commissioning ceremony of the patrol vessels donated from Japan to Sri Lanka under the Grant Aid of Government of Japan, to be held on 29 August at the Colombo Port, the Japanese Embassy said. Two patrol vessels are to be handed over to Sri Lanka Coast Guard, which will be utilized to improve maritime safety and strengthen control of the maritime borders of Sri Lanka.

Last week, the visit by Japan’s Defence Minister coincided with the arrival of the Japanese naval ship “Ikazuchi” belonging to the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force, arriving at the Trincomalee port for a three-day goodwill visit, was indication that Japan is keen to do something about the Chinese advances in the island. It is the first time Japan sent its Defence Minister to the country and Itsunori Onodera visiting sites in Southern Sri Lanka where China has been leased the Hambantota port for 99 years, was significant, sending out a strong message to China that the race is still long.

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Onodera visited the Colombo port on Tuesday, August 21,  and the Southern Hambantota port which is operated by China Merchants Group on Wednesday, August 22 and discussed with Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena the development of the Trincomalee port in the east of Sri Lanka, one of the largest natural harbors in the world.Alsoimportantly the fact that Japan wants to be more involved in being militarily engaged with Sri Lanka was seen when discussions between Japan and Lanka last week focused on matters pertaining to training of Navies of both countries.

It is likely, according to some political speculation that such trainings would take place, not very long from now, in the strategically located Hambantota port vicinity, conveying a message to the world in general that the Lankan Navy is in control of whatever military activities that will be allowed in the port area and not China.

The visit of the Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs and its Defence Minister, comes in the backdrop of Japan seeking closer economic integration with ASEAN and amidst Sri Lankacurrently signing FTAs with AEAN economic powers such as Singapore. Yet another development is that the Lankan Cabinet is considering issuing international sovereign bonds in the Renminbi and the yen, besides the US dollar indicating theincreasing importance of both China and Japan for Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, in the backdrop of a Reuters report that China aims to build houses and roads in Sri Lanka’s North, China’s Global Times quoted Sri Lankan Ambassador to China Karunasena Kodituwakku Wednesday strongly refuting recent media reports criticising Chinese investments in Sri Lanka and projecting the scenario as one where China is dragging Lanka into debt.
“What I want to highlight here is that Sri Lanka asked for this project loan on our own. We were not forced to get this loan,” Kodituwakku told the Global Times in an interview in Beijing.

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“It is very unfair to blame China or [the Export-Import Bank of China] or the firms that constructed the Hambantota Port,” Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to China had further said. “It is a decision taken by the Government of Sri Lanka… if something was wrong in the decision, we are responsible.” Kodituwakku had also said in his interview that Sri Lanka is seeking more Chinese involvement in economic development in the island, ranging from industrial bases to export capacity building.

That China is getting into what was the stronghold of India in the island; the North of Sri Lanka which was plagued by 30 years of war indicates that it has long term plans of not leaving Lanka’s war scarred north to be the playing field of India alone. According to a Reuters report quoting Luo Chong, Chief of the Political Section at China’s Embassy in Colombo, China wants to build houses and roads in Sri Lanka’s north which are still in a dilapidated state of disrepair despite the civil war between the government military and the Tamil Tigers being over in 2009.

“Since the situation is different now, we are willing to have more projects in remote areas in the north and east with the support of the Sri Lankan Government and from the Tamil communities,” Luo Chong had told Reuters. The Chinese projects in North Lanka will counter India whose assistance to the North have been constant, including building houses for the war effected and the most recent launch of an ambulance service for the Northern province.