TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Sri Lanka's recent proposal to undo the previous government's contract to lease its southern port of Hambantota to a Chinese company is not only a major setback to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but also a sign of growing awareness in South and Southeast Asia of the national security threat posed by China, said the chairman of a Taiwanese think tank.
Sri Lanka's new government wants to revoke a contract signed in 2017 between former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chinese state-backed enterprise China Merchants Port Holdings Co, citing national interest. The deal allows the company to lease Hambantota's port for 99 years in exchange for lifting US$1.1 billion of debt accrued in its construction.
The former governor of Sri Lanka's central bank, Ajith Nivard Cabraal said in an interview recently that the country "would like them to give [Hambantota Port] back." He also expressed hope that the island nation could "pay back the loan in due course in the way that we had originally agreed without any disturbance at all."
The new government is said to be under pressure to honor its election promise to revisit the debt-equity swap agreement, which targeted Hambantota for its maritime significance and strategic value.
In an op-ed released by Upmedia on Saturday (Dec. 7), the founder and chairman of Taipei-based think tank Golden Rock, Jason Wu (吳奕軍), said the shift marks an awakening among South and Southeast Asian countries to China's ambitions as well as growing debt-trap concerns in nations participating in the BRI.
Meanwhile, anti-China sentiment is rising in BRI participant countries Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where people are asking their governments to prevent Chinese from obtaining citizenship or work permits. "At least 13 countries across Europe, Asia, and Africa are suffering from China's debt traps," Wu said.
China Merchants Port Holdings Co has not yet responded to the "diplomatically bad news" in Sri Lanka, nor is it able to, Wu added. He noted that the Chinese government has likewise been silent.