Regional Centre for Strategic Studies organized the international conference on “China in South Asia/South Asia in China: OBOR and the Sri Lankan Experience”, which was held from 30 – 31 August, 2017, at Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
The inaugural session of the conference was preceded by the distinguished guests including the Guest of Honour, His Excellency Yi Xianliang, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Sri Lanka; the keynote speaker Mr. Bernard Goonetilleke, Former Ambassador and Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka; Professor Indralal De Silva, Executive Director (Acting), Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), Colombo, Sri Lanka.
During the speech of the Guest of honour, the Keynote Speaker and the RCSS Executive Director, many points were highlighted which stimulated deliberations on the China –South Asia – Sri Lanka relations.
Professor Indralal De Silva in his welcome speech, explained about the conference, mentioning that this is the second conference to be held under the RCSS initiative called “China in South Asia/South Asia in China.” He pointed out that the conference focus on China’s One Belt One Road, otherwise known as Belt and Road Initiative or OBOR and mainly understand how far Sri Lanka has manage to go forward adapting to the changes this initiative brings specifically to Sri Lanka and in general to South Asia. He emphasised that this conference is an attempt to shed light on various aspects of heightening connectivity between China and South Asia and discuss beyond the conventional focus on the security aspect in the face of China’s presence in the South Asian region.
The Guest of Honour, His Excellency Yi Xianliang, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Sri Lanka in his remarks, highlighted the heightened activities between China and South Asia in the year 2017. He reiterated the fact that China is a part of South Asia as the religions like Buddhism and Islam came to China from South Asian region and the proximity of some of China’s cities to the cities in the countries of South Asia region is also a considerable point. Referring to the current relations between the two regions, the interdependency of China and South Asia was highlighted. There have been many positive activities such as, economic activities, scholarships and fellowships offered between China and South Asia compared to China and other regions. The Ambassador highlighted that One Belt One Road (OBOR), a top-down policy, is an economic venture, while it has cultural and social components, and there is no strategic consideration nor any hidden agenda. He pointed out that OBOR is similar to the Marshal Plan, but the only difference in this strategy is that there is no bottom-up policy. He said OBOR simply is a means to promote cooperation among the various entities in the region. Making final remarks, he pointed out that managing negative elements in China – South Asia relations requires attention, and opportunities for cooperation can be ventured in the areas of disaster management and climate change adaptation as climate change is an issue that affects most of the countries in the region.
Mr. Bernard Goonetilleke made valuable remarks as he delivered the keynote speech. Giving a historical account of the Silk Road economic belt he pointed out that the maritime route has existed for centuries and the Indian ocean was occupied by Chinese, Greeks, Indians and Sri Lankans. He highlighted that understanding China’s intentions, expectations of other countries and strategic matters related to BRI is required to comprehend the old Silk Road’s new formation of BRI. It involves 65 countries which amount to 1/3 of Global GDP. OBOR will develop infrastructure resulting economic benefits for developing countries, an indication that this project is larger than the Marshal plan. He stated that out of the SAARC countries, Afghanistan, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have supported BRI thus far by participating in the BRI summit in 2017, while India denied taking part in the summit. The reasons for the support of these SAARC countries being, heavy investment in infrastructure projects connecting various important regions of the aforementioned countries improving connectivity.
Commenting on the Sri Lanka’s interaction with the BRI, Mr. Goonetilleke pointed out OBOR was supported during former President Mahinda Rajapaksha’s tenure and even after the change of government in 2015. Sri Lanka is willing to utilise the OBOR initiative to have infrastructure development in the locations of significant importance to the country. President Rajapaksha sees China as an ‘unwavering friend’ as China extended economic, political and military support during the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, and also when the country was facing human rights violation accusations after ending the war, as Sri Lanka had only China to rely on for support. However, the present government’s relations with China sored in the early period of its succession, as they temporarily suspended the Colombo Port City project creating disbelief not only among Chinese investors but others as well. Though hoped for new investments from the western countries, failing to get any, the present government again turned to China for development aid and investments. He indicated that even before the BRI, Sri Lanka had been getting investments from China. However, with the BRI Colombo Port City project, Hambantota Port Development project, extension of the Southern Expressway, operation and maintenance of Lakvjaya power station, etc. came as new investments. Both government sector projects and private investments came to the country with BRI. However, along with these massive investments Sri Lanka is facing the challenge of the debt trap as return on investments is not adequate to pay the loans. Amidst this, the politicians are accused of mismanaging the Chinese investments while part of the blame is also going to the Chinese counterparts for not assessing properly prior to lending. An example would be the recent Hambantota Port deal, disadvantageous to Sri Lanka, which was given to China for 99 year lease.
Finally he highlighted that the regime change and the alterations in policy towards China is disappointing and shows how fragile Sri Lanka’s policies with regard to China. However, the current government has been successful in restoring relations with China still leaving ambiguity in minds of the Chinese. The best that Sri Lanka should do is adhere to a way of winning back the Chinese confidence and reliability.
During the conference the scholars presented under the following thematic sessions: Security and Maritime security; Economic Development; Governance and Politics; Business Opportunities and Environment and Culture. The participants engaged in many deliberations where much were focused on China’s OBOR initiative, its potential, the challenges it will face, and the impact of the initiative on South Asia and Sri Lanka. The conference came to an end successfully while hoping to connect this for the future RCSS activities on the broader theme of China – South Asia relations.
The RCSS will soon publish the conference report on the website enabling a broad base of stakeholders to access the ideas discussed.