Is China’s Belt and Road a lifeline or a noose? As China seeks to advance both commercial/economic and geostrategic interests, across the world, it has appealed to leaders in many developing countries who, even if they are of unimpeachable integrity, may think the Chinese offer a better deal with fewer strings than they could get from Western institutions like the World Bank. But as a recent article in the New York Times illustrates, they should think again.
The article shows just how much one Chinese investment, in Sri Lanka, has impoverished its “beneficiary” and diminished its sovereignty. One striking detail: in a port built by Chinese companies and financed by Chinese loans underwritten by Sri Lanka’s government, China Merchants, the state-owned company that owns 85% of the port, exercises exclusive sovereignty over some 15,000 acres of land in and around the port, as well as over a 50-acre tract in the country’s main port in Colombo, the capital. This echoes the sovereign concessions in Shanghai and other Chinese cities exacted by the Western powers at the time of the Opium Wars, which to this day are a reminder to the China of its humiliation at the hands of the West and its determination to restore its rightful place in the world.
China appears to be ramping up its activities under Belt and Road, possibly with greater emphasis now than before on the military component of its ventures, as the U.S. under Donald Trump proceeds to blow up its historic alliances and leave the field open to Chinese expansion. But, as a strongly anti-American British friend of mine says, the only thing worse than living under American hegemony would be to live under Chinese hegemony.