To the extent that we can make any confident prophesies about world affairs in this very fragile current context, it is reasonable to predict that (a) global political, military, economic and ideological competition between China and the US is going to continue to loom large and (b) Sri Lanka, for a range of historical and geographical reasons, is likely to remain caught up in that competition. We can expect to see many more partisan spats, like those between Jonathan Hillman and Fair Dinkum in relation to the Hambantota Port, counterposing good/wicked China against wicked/good US. Some claims will be right, and some wrong. My guess is that in 10 years or so, the two combatants will earn similar levels of positive and negative points.
What should really matter to Sri Lankans is first that its governments maintain strategic leverage in relation to both powers. They should be neither too close nor too remote from either, and they should hone their bargaining skills. Second, they should use that leverage in the national interest, rather than in the narrow interests of the particular groups that happen to be in power at any moment. It is on this second point I would like to concentrate. I’ll start with a story from another time and place.
Remember the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis? If you don’t remember, online sources can tell you a simple story. The Soviet Union managed secretly to import knocked-down nuclear missile components into the territory of its ally/puppet, Cuba, and began to deploy them. When the American government discovered what was happening, a global crisis quickly followed, and the world came very close to nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. The US could not tolerate this threat on its doorstep. President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, and publicly declared that the Soviet Union should remove the missiles, or else…. After a tense day when the first Soviet ship sailing toward Cuba was likely to intercepted by the Americans, Premier Khrushchev backed down. The Soviets vessels turned away. The missiles on Cuba were dismantled. In return, the US removed Soviet-facing missiles it had recently installed in Turkey. Kennedy lived up to his reputation for being tough with the Soviets, and his party did well at the Congressional mid-term elections at the end of the year.
All so dramatic. But significantly wrong, as explained by Theodore Voorhees in The Silent Guns of Two Octobers: Kennedy and Khrushchev Play the Double Game (Michigan University Press. 2020). The placing of nuclear missiles in Cuba did not significantly change the strategic relationship between the Soviet Union and the US. Kennedy knew that, with or without them, any nuclear exchange would result in massive damage to the US. His instinct was to play the Cuba issue down and take little action. But he knew that, once the information about the deployments became public, the Republican Party would be able to use it to do serious electoral damage to Democratic Party in the forthcoming mid-term elections. So, Kennedy had to take the initiative. Publicly, he was confrontational with the Soviet Union. Privately and secretly, cutting out his whole foreign policy and military establishment and most of his own staff, he re-opened an unofficial line of communication with Khrushchev. Khrushchev was not too keen on the whole Cuba adventure. He had authorised it to strengthen his hand in internal Soviet politics. Both leaders were pleased to reach a deal – and indeed Kennedy removed more American missiles from Turkey (and Italy) than the Soviets would have settled for.
The moral of the story? Donald Trump was not greatly out of line in trying to use his personal and direct relationships with the Russian government to strengthen his political hand at home. Political leaders will always tend to do that if they can. They cannot be entirely prevented. But unaccountable political leaders are especially likely to do it in ways that damage their own countries and citizens. And that takes us down to Hambantota.
Let us start with a little ground clearing. It is irrelevant whether Leonard Woolf, D.A. Rajapakse or any other historical character ever suggested expanding the port at Hambantota or somewhere nearby. Until recently, for a combination of technical and economic reasons, the current port structure would have been infeasible and inconceivable. It is a totally new port, carved out by shifting massive amounts of rock and earth, at enormous cost. Sri Lanka has not been short of port facilities. Trincomalee is grossly under-used. In the 1970s especially, the problems in Colombo were not shortage of physical facilities, but poor management. As Hillman points out, there is still scope to expand Colombo’s port facilities, at a much lower unit cost than Hambantota. At the moment, the economic hinterland of the Hambantota Port generates virtually no exports and has rather modest needs for imports. In relation to current needs, the Hambantota Port is a white elephant.
But what has been built does not accord exactly with what was, at least at one point, planned. At least one earlier Chinese proposal – perhaps the main Chinese proposal – was that the port would be an integral part of a much more ambitious regional development project covering a substantial chunk of Ruhuna. Those regional development proposals were dropped, for reasons of “politics” (quote) that remain obscure. It is possible – and we can say no more than that – that the more ambitious Chinese proposal would have made more economic sense in the long term.
So, it is reasonable to assume that at least some people on the Chinese side of the deal had wider concerns, beyond the port itself, about the benefits to Sri Lanka. In a similar vein, the Chinese loans to finance the Hambantota Port were charged at about the commercial or expected rate. There was no financial rip-off. It is also worth mentioning that Hambantota has very little value as a military facility during actual conflict. Ships entering, leaving or in dock would be very vulnerable.
Chinese actors probably can be blamed for participating in a massively expensive project that Sri Lanka does not need at present, and really can’t afford. But they did not impose this project on Sri Lanka. The government chose to play ball with enthusiasm. There are certainly benefits to various Chinese institutions, and to the Sri Lankan political leaders who were responsible. Are there benefits to the Sri Lankan economy and to the average Sri Lankan? Probably not.
The wider moral of the story is that, when we see partisan quarrels about whether China or the US (or India) is a better friend of Sri Lanka, we need to stop and think. Is this a smokescreen for powerful Sri Lankans to do well for themselves by exploiting their relationships with China, the US, India (or the UK, Malaysia, Qatar, the UAE, Germany, ….)? It is safest to assume that overseas governments and companies will rarely approach Sri Lanka with the interests of the country foremost in their minds. We need to be wary of them, and equally wary that national leaders are not stoking disputes among domestic partisans of China and the US (and other countries) for their own malign or self-interested purposes.
A NOTE from Michael Roberts
The highlighting emphases within this article are my imposition. The academic exchanges between Mick and myself go back a long way –to the early 1970s when Mick Moore was attached to the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. Besides numerous articles, Mick has produced at least one book on Sri Lanka –an important one entitled The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka, (CUP, 1985). Do note these descriptions: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/1868 & http://www.gsdrc.org/docs/open/ret57.pdf. However, on this issue, I believe he has underestimated both the economic developmental and the tourist potential of the south-eastern quadrant of Sri Lanka. My assessment is guided by three relatively recent visit to that area: as a cricket lover to Sooriyawewa in 2011; as a tourist visiting Buduruvagala, Arugam Bay Kumana and Yala in 2015 and, again, as a tourist visiting Bundala-Tissamaharama-Kirinde-Yala, and thence to Ella, in January 2018.
Mick and the public pursuing this topic will profit from a reading of the article by Christopher Devonshire-Ellis (based in Sri Lanka) entitled “The Real not Secret History of Hambantota” …. At …https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2021/09/06/the-real-not-secret-history-of-hambantota/
END NOTES by Moore
 I am grateful to Deborah Brautigam for originally alerting me to this.
 I obtained confirmation of this from a very trusted source highly placed in the government policymaking process.
 Again, I have this information from a very trusted and senior source, that must unfortunately remain confidential.