Can we play together again, big bro?

No eyebrows were raised when we heard that the port city project would continue under the new administration. Despite all the pressure from our new friends, can we afford to lose this old one?

If Sri Lanka ever had a trusted protective big brother, it was China. Historically, we have never treated any other nation with such affection, dedication and maybe even reverence. All the rest who set foot on our soil – Cholas, Pandyas, Javanese,Portuguese, Dutch, English – were ‘invaders’. We trusted none.

China was different. All our rulers, one after the other, eagerly attempted building healthy foreign relationships with China.

Chronicles say King Upatissa (368-410 AD) was the first to attempt trade relations with the Chinese empire. He sent a mission across Central Asia on foot to a Chinese emperor of the Tsing Dynasty. That took 10 years. By the time the mission reached China, the sender and the originally intended receiver were both long dead. Still, the missionary faithfully presented himself to the emperor with the gifts from Lanka. We learn that from ancient Chinese chronicles. Understandably, the mission never returned.

Bhatika Abhaya, Gajabahu I, Mahanama and Dhatusena were a few others to follow this great tradition. These attempts preceeded the era of widespread Sino-Lanka sea trade. For example, the Colombo museum has more artifacts from China than any other foreign country. The striking similarity between the lion statues at Yapahuwa and the ones you see in front of Chinese temples is not a coincidence.

Zheng He, the early Ming dynasty mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral, created a new chapter. He commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. His larger ships stretched 120 meters in length (Columbus’s Santa Maria, for comparison, was only 25 meters). They carried hundreds of sailors on four tiers of decks. It was arguably the largest single shipping expedition ever. We can only imagine the resources that went into this project.

Zheng visited Galle, the key sea port of Lanka prior to the arrival of Europeans, in two of his voyages. The first one could purely be for exploration. He was more prepared the second time. With him was a trilingual tablet, which he planned to erect in Lanka. (It was in Chinese, Persian and Tamil – the latter two could be the standard regional business languages of times). Inscribed in Nanjing before the fleet set out, it praises Buddha and records lavish offerings in his honor. The rest of the text refers to offerings made by Zheng and others to Allah and the Tamil god Tenavarai Nayanar. The admiral invoked the blessings of Hindu deities here for a peaceful world built on trade. The tablet was discovered in Galle in 1911, and is now preserved in the Colombo National Museum. A replica can be seen in the Maritime museum at Galle Fort.

All our rulers, one after the other, eagerly attempted building healthy foreign relationships with China

Zheng’s interest in this tiny island was not without reason. He was interested in the sacred tooth relic (dhanta-datu) of Buddha. That was perhaps the only request from China ever denied by a Lankan ruler. Zheng declared war on the Kotte kingdom, abducted its ruler Vira Alakasvera and took him to China. By the time the captives were brought back, sometime later, Parakramabahu VI (1411-65) had already taken power. Looks like the successor got the message, as he has sent envoys to China with tributes no less than five times.

Then went four centuries of silence. Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) established new relationships with China only after independence. This time, it came as a trade pact. PM Dudley Senanayake’s new government had completed only a few months when the country faced a dire rice shortage, writes Dr J B Kelegama. Local production was seriously limited. Traditional suppliers – Burma, Thailand and Indo-China – could not meet the demand. The market price of rice had risen by 38% within a year. In this backdrop, the then-Minister of Commerce R G Senanayake successfully negotiated a deal with China to sell rice to Ceylon in exchange for rubber. China was unable to purchase rubber from Malaya then following a UN resolution that prevented such transactions.

The ‘Rubber-Rice Pact’ was a win-win. In the first year itself, Ceylon got 270,000 tons of rice from China for 50,000 tons of rubber. China paid a premium price, as well as handling charges for rubber exports. Other side benefits included a Rs125 million grant (a considerable sum then) to partially meet the cost of rubber replanting. Thousands of acres of uneconomic rubber land were thus replanted, revitalizing the local rubber industry. Chinese influence was again prominent during the 1970-77 era. That was when we got the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) as a gift.

Well, this history of 2,000 years is dwarfed against what happened from 2005-14. China graciously funded (through loans, of course) inter alia an international sea port, the second international airport, a 300MW power plant, a portion of the island’s first highway, a cricket stadium and the National Performing Arts Theatre. In short, nearly 70% of the country’s infrastructure projects for this period were funded and built by China. Unconfirmed reports said, at one point, more than 5,000 Chinese citizens were employed in projects here. The total Chinese investment during this period is not fully known. One researcher puts it around $5 billion – not insignificant for an $80 billion economy.

The most controversial among all recent Chinese projects was the Colombo Port City project – to be built by China Communication Construction Company (CCCC), a subsidiary of China Harbor Engineering Company, in cooperation with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. The project will cost $1.4 billion. It was supposed to be completed within a period of 40 months, but went to a deadlock situation after the change in government. The new administration officially informed Chinese investors of resuming construction only in March this year, more than one year after its suspension. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang hailed the decision during PM Ranil Wickramasinghe’s recent visit to Beijing.

Well, that’s not surprising. You do not have to be an economist to know why Sri Lanka cannot ignore China. The middle kingdom is big: too big. Currently, China is the world’s second-largest economy – predicted to overcome the first probably within another 15-20 years. Till last year, it was also the world’s fastest developing economy, with growth rates averaging to 10% over a 30-year period. It is not only a global hub for manufacturing, but is the largest manufacturing economy in the world. China is also the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods. Not to mention it is also the world’s fastest growing consumer market. Nobody will dare ignore the sole Asian economy to have a GDP above the $10 trillion mark.

The sooner we realize the importance of China, the better off we will be. Why disturb important foreign trade relations because of petty local politics? We’ve enjoyed the benefits of Sino-Lanka relations over centuries. So why not now?