Deal between Sri Lanka, Japan & India to jointly develop Colombo container port should not be seen as competitor to Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative, but viewed as complementing it.
China does not have a monopoly on infrastructure development in Asia. Nor could it ever hope to; the financial resources necessary to build the roads, railways, shipping facilities and power grids that the region needs to grow and thrive are simply too immense.
A deal between Sri Lanka, Japan and India to jointly develop a container port in Colombo therefore should not be seen as a competitor to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Rather, the project should be viewed as complementing the ambitious scheme.
There was bound to be speculation that a rival to the initiative was taking shape when the port deal was announced at the end of last month. A similar project undertaken by China on Sri Lanka’s coast at the town of Hambantota led to criticism after Colombo was unable to meet loan obligations.
An agreement under which the facility was handed over to Chinese control on a 99-year lease prompted accusations, vociferously taken up by United States President Donald Trump’s administration, that the initiative was a form of debt diplomacy to make nations subservient to Beijing.
That could not be further from the truth, with China expressing and showing a willingness to revisit deals and the terms of projects.
But the idea of a scheme to build infrastructure across Asia is not new, Japan having raised it in the 1990s. Nor is Beijing protective of the belt and road plan; it has welcomed all comers, either to work with its companies or develop projects of their own.
Japan has agreed to joint projects with China, but India has so far refused to participate, New Delhi being suspicious of Beijing’s geopolitical intentions in South Asia.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just ended a weekend trip to Sri Lanka and the Maldives to shore up support, a move in keeping with the “neighbourhood first” policy he adopted after taking office.
Linking Asia with Africa and Europe by land and sea through infrastructure development will benefit all countries involved. India and Japan have reasons to work together, just as Japan has had with China on belt and road projects in Southeast Asia. Infrastructure development should be seen in terms of shared benefit, not rivalry.