Sri Lanka and the ‘debt trap’ slur

26 Nov

Yesterday the centre-right Nikkei Asia ran this on its website:

Sri Lanka awards port project to China after dropping Japan, India

Beijing steps up Belt and Road spending with support of friendly president

Shipping containers at the main port of Colombo. Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean and deep harbors make it strategically important under China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Sri Lanka will tap a Chinese company for a port project in Colombo, previously awarded to Japan and India before the partnership was scrapped early this year.

The decision highlights Colombo’s balancing act and comes a month after India’s Adani Group was awarded another deal worth over $700 million to develop the West Container Terminal at the Colombo port. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said he wants “neutral” relations with India and China as the nation struggles with a shortage of foreign currency.

His cabinet on Tuesday agreed to have state-run China Harbour Engineering develop the Eastern Container Terminal while stipulating that local authorities would handle all operations. It cited recommendations by a cabinet-appointed committee as the basis for the decision.

The apparent pro-China tilt of Rajapaksa’s government is seen as a factor in the change of plans. Beijing has invested heavily in projects on the strategically positioned island under its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Sri Lanka had signed a memorandum of understanding with Japan and India in May 2019, under previous President Maithripala Sirisena, to jointly develop the Colombo terminal. The operating company would be 51% owned by the Sri Lankan government, the rest by Japan and India.

Rajapaksa, who took office in November of that year, indicated at first that the project would stay on course.

That changed this past February, when the cabinet decided that the operating company would be wholly owned by Sri Lanka, pushing Japan and India out of the project. Tokyo called the unilateral move “regrettable.”

China continues to finance Sri Lankan infrastructure, taking control of projects such as roads and ports in the process. Concerns have been raised that this support is pushing the country into a debt trap, as was seen in a 2017 lease deal of the Hambantota port in the southern coast of the island. The previous government leased it out to a Chinese state-run company for 99 years, in return for $1.1 billion as a part of Colombo’s efforts to repay debt to China.

Other than light edits for brevity, the piece is replicated here in full.


The self appointed Media Bias/Fact Check site gives Nikkei Asia a “high” on factual accuracy, second only to “very high” on its 6-pack scale. (The Guardian gets the fourth rating, “mixed”.)

Make of that what you will. But do bear in mind that Media Bias/Fact Check, funded by a mix of donors and advertisers, is subject to the same corrupting forces as the media it assesses.

Which means that, like the ‘quality’ press, it’ll be reliable as long as the stakes are not too high for ruling interests. The key is in that reliance on advertisers and on donors.

So on many issues Nikkei Asia will outperform the Guardian – easier than many suppose – on factual accuracy. But the challenge to the US “rules based order” posed by China rising sends the stakes into the stratosphere. Which means that accuracy – yes, even for Nikkei Asia – takes second place, a reality at work in the piece’s two closing sentences.

Concerns have been raised that this support is pushing the country into a debt trap, as was seen in a 2017 lease deal of the Hambantota port in the southern coast of the island. The previous government leased it out to a Chinese state-run company for 99 years, in return for $1.1 billion as a part of Colombo’s efforts to repay debt to China.

I don’t doubt the final sentence’s accuracy. The dishonesty is in the sequence; in the implication that it both exemplifies and proves the unattributed assertion of the preceding sentence. In an October post on Guardian coverage of China, I wrote:

The use of such smear constructs as “has been accused of …” – variants include “it is thought that …” and “sources say …” – are evidentially worthless. But when they chime with overarching narratives they do their work on the more dimly lit corridors – no smoke without fire – of consciousness.

As does a construct like “concerns have been raised …” At best that’s rank bad journalism. But given the context of an overwhelming Sinophobic media climate, I’m disinclined to chalk this up to mere sloppiness.

Whatever. On the China-debt trap allegations in general, Hambantota Port in particular, I offer The Chinese ‘Debt Trap’ Is a Myth, by two US academics. One is Professor Meg Rithmire of  Harvard Business School. The other is Deborah Brautigam, Professor of International Political Economy in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and Director of the China Africa Research Initiative at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

Call me perverse but I place rather more trust in these two than in a staff writer at Nikkei Asia; regardless of the “high” accuracy rating conferred upon the latter by a murkily funded – and self anointed – fact/bias checker site.

Caitlin Johnstone recently wrote of our sleepwalking into nuclear war. A zillion slur pieces, like this Nikkei Asia offering, do daily duty to keep us somnambulating in the direction required. By whom? By ruling elites who’ll see Armageddon unleashed before they’ll surrender their self-conferred licence to plunder and trash the planet for private gain.


3 Replies to “Sri Lanka and the ‘debt trap’ slur

  1. RT has a similar report today on the same theme. In this case Laos:

    Summed up in this observation:

    Anyone who knows anything about Laos’ relatively recent past will be well aware that China is not the country to fear, but the United States – the nation that dropped over 260 million cluster bombs on Laos and completely devastated the country as an extension of the Vietnam War, making it the most single bombed nation in history and claiming over 50,000 lives. …

    … It is a demonstration of how the power of the English-language, pro-US media distorts reality itself and how they can blow up an issue, yet hide the truth, by professing to care dearly about the wellbeing and interests of a country which the West poured death, destruction and carnage upon in the name of freedom.

    • Just read it Dave – another good recommend by you. Whether coming from neoliberal mouthpieces, or an increasingly disconnected ‘far left’, criticisms of China and Belt & Road signally fail to answer a simple question:

      If no hope is to be found in China’s rise, what is your recipe in the here and now for saving humanity from the abyss it is hurtling towards?

      (I sketch out the nature of that ‘abyss’ in the opening paragraphs of this open letter.)

      IMF recipes for global south ‘development’ are easily refuted on logical as well as empirical grounds. As for those ultraleftist critics of Beijing’s “capitalist roadism”, I say simply that China’s capitalists (a) have been vital to a miracle which, as even the US-led World Bank admits, lifted 730 million people from its ‘extreme poverty’ classification, (b) are subordinate to state policy – when in the West it’s the other way round – and (c) are needed because the failure of the West’s Left to make its own revolutions obliged China to adapt to global conditions of entrenched neoliberalism.

      • I know what you mean about what I prefer to to consider the (self-referencing) ‘Offical left.’

        I have in recent times been what might be considered a passive participant in what I refer to as one of three ‘organised initiatives’ each of which was given outlaw status by the LP back in late July.

        As an aside: despite informing an NEC member (who subsequently voted in favour of this outlawing) of my status in this regard prior to this decision I have received no letter of suspension. Unlike many other LP members. Which speaks volumes about the scale of ineptitude which exists.

        A week or so ago I attended an online meeting of one of these organised initiatives to consider a proposal to merge with one of the other two outlawed organised initiatives.

        This was proposed by a well known anti-Zionist and avowed Marxist member of the Jewish community who was expelled a while back. One of the very able co-chair’s was someone who has featured on this site for being de-platformed from a meeting complaining about being de-platformed from the LP.

        It was obvious from some of the verbal and written discussion on the platform that some opposition to this proposed merger – which both initiatives have now voted for* – has resulted in several resignations from steering committees.

        This was reflected during the discussion and debate in a form reminiscent of some scenes from Pythons ‘Life of Brian.’ Going off at tangents on obscure ideological points; snide written and verbal comments and so on.

        No doubt there has been a degree of ‘taking bat and ball home’ in some instances within both organised initiatives.

        However, what was deeply depressing was coming away with the knowledge that if this is representative of the organised ‘left’ I’d hate to see the disorganised left.

        And therein lies the problem. Wherever you look there exists no effective or effectively organised opposition to the status quo in the West. The woke progressive ‘left’ are more concerned with attacking and annihilating any remaining parts of the ‘left’ who don’t conform to the right wing Randian/Thatcherite bullshit philosophy they are acting as water carriers for; the rest of the left seem to trapped in their own obscure purity spiral competition as to who represents the ‘left’ to the extent of not even being capable of agreeing on the colour of an orange.

        * I did raise the question – which seems to me to be obvious to a blind man on a galloping horse – that the merger of these two organised initiatives would de facto mean that both (ie two out of the three proscribed groups) would cease to exist and that the merger would form an entirely new single organised initiative/group which at present is not proscribed (though the LP NEC might get around to voting on that point at some stage). I got the impression this was perhaps a bit too dialectic?

        But WTF do I know. I’m only an (ex) hairy arsed cable jointer.

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