NEOCOLONIAL SRI LANKA
IMPERIAL CHINA RISING
BY Priyan Rajapaksa
This is the story of another persuasive coloniser with an offer we can’t refuse and a perpetual colony that can’t put its house in order. We colonials should learn from history that foreign traders who arrive with promises stay on as colonisers.
As George Santayana said, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Emperors then and presidents now plan for eternity; but emperors die and empires wither. So don’t fret.
The Chinese empire and its lease on Hambantota will expire in 98 years. Would we have discarded religion and communalism, and become one nation by then?
And the Roman Empire collapsed after some 450 years. The British Empire closed shop in Colombo after 200 years. But the pace of progress, decay and disruption is more rapid now.
In July last year, Bloomberg cited the decline of the American empire. My prediction is that it will be gone by 2045 or so.
The US is at war with itself: bargaining for its soul and under siege; battling Russians, Chinese and resurgent Islamic countries, which makes it reminiscent of Rome in 475 CE. Roman legions were fighting on all the empire’s borders when Germanic tribes overran Rome.
Much like the Roman Empire, the American version has cash flow problems, is repositioning its armies and asking its ‘colonies’ to pay for their own defence. America is crumbling like Rome once did. Excessive debt, obesity, drug addiction and inequality are taking their toll.
Empire builders are opportunists who enter the fray when they spot a weak and misgoverned country. Dutugemunu could’ve built a navy and ensured our maritime defences, but squandered Sri Lanka’s wealth on too many stupas and religion.
Without a naval tradition, we were prey to every passing opportunist.
Afterwards, South Indians invaded at will and left us an island with a siege mentality with ill will towards South India. Since then sundry Indians, Portuguese, Dutch, British and now Chinese navies have controlled our seas. We see Pakistani, Japanese, Iranian and US navies drop anchor in Colombo. Naval ships are not cruise liners; they don’t love us but our geographic position and ports.
Over three decades after the British left, Indira Gandhi and her family stuck their fingers in Sri Lanka’s affairs. The supposed democracies of the West traded Sri Lanka into India’s sphere and we had no option but to ask Chinese help to fight the Tigers.
Of course, the Chinese had their price. The Hambantota Port was part of the deal. The port may have had commercial possibilities but the airport was megalomania spelt with a capital ‘R.’
The former Indian Ocean is now the ‘West China Sea’ and we’re the focus of Indo-Chinese manoeuvres. But the Chinese do not need troops as battles are being fought by mercenaries in our own parliament – they use guided chilli missiles.
As we know, the Indians adapted Sanskrit and we make out that Buddhism is our own but vehemently deny that we’re Indian. For the last 2,200 years, we have tried to not be reabsorbed into India.
The Chinese aren’t known for subtlety – they’re a master race; and they say so. Since 1000 BCE, the Chinese emperor was known as the ‘Son of Heaven’ and the Chinese name for China was Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom).
And the Chou believed that their empire occupied the middle of the Earth and was surrounded by barbarians. In my view, this thinking hasn’t changed: since 1949, the name for China has been Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo – ‘middle glorious people’s republican country’ (or formally, the People’s Republic of China).
Maybe we have opened our eyes, after all?
To the credit of our administration, it solved the debacle of a dead port and ghost airport in a backwater by handing the debt of the port back to the lender, and hung the dead airport on the neck of our busybody northern neighbour. It’s probably not the best deal but the only one possible.
Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) estimates that a quarter of soybean exports and a fifth of rice pass through Malacca, supplying more Asian markets to satisfy increasingly wealthy populations.
Like the Sri Lankan rice packet, the Chinese too must have their rice bowl and will defend Hambantota. So we must play our cards wisely. Superpowers – white, brown or yellow – do not like humiliation and will flex their muscles when needed.
On land or sea, nations that offer staging posts to serve international traders have prospered. We could too but lack honest sincere leaders. Old empires clashed at the chokepoints of trade routes. We could have avoided being a flashpoint but are caught by the short and curlies – a small nation with massive debt in the middle of a major sea lane.
Chinese diplomat Zheng He kidnapped (or ‘extraordinarily rendered’) Sri Lankan King Alagakkonara in 1411 and took him to Beijing. An ex-president eating peanuts in Beijing because they do not serve cashew nuts wouldn’t be a happy ending.
The moral of this story is that we have 98 years to study history that does repeat itself.