China has been Sri Lanka’s largest lender over the past decade. But despite its debated role in the island nation’s largest development projects, it is barely being talked about on the rowdy campaign trail.
Sri Lanka will go to the surveys on November 18, with Sajith Premadasa from the ruling United National Party opposing against Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be the next president.
The quietness on China is a far cry from five years ago when it was front and centre of the elections. Back then Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, ran for an unparalleled third term but was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena.
Mahinda Rajapaksa revelled in the radiance of being a China favourite. He campaigned on the apparent triumph of the large development projects including Port City, a USD 1 billion land reclamation project growing from the sea just over the horizon on Colombo’s western beach front. Other major schemes included an airport, a port, several city hotels and highways sponsored through Chinese financing. The crowning glory of the relationship was when Rajapaksa held President Xi Jinping in Colombo in September 2014.
The Sirisena faction tried to paint Chinese loans to Sri Lanka as strangleholds damaging to the country’s long term financial interest. They were predominantly critical of the Port City development in Colombo, and the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa Airport in Hambantota region. They called the airport a vanity project and made allegations that Chinese interests were helping the Rajapaksa campaign.
When the Sirisena administration took office, it put off the Port City scheme. And when international airlines stopped coming to Mattala, it was utilized for a while to store rice.