Sri Lanka’s experience suggests China not anyone’s ‘all-weather’ friend
By Maria Siow
On Wednesday (22(, Sri Lanka announced that it would call China, India and Japan to a donor conference to drum up more foreign assistance.
A few weeks earlier, the Indian Ocean island nation had said it expected creditor nations, including China and India, to help keep its bankrupt economy afloat until the government could clinch an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout – and tackle its mountain of foreign debt.
But surely expectations were higher that China, as an “all-weather friend”, would and should do more to help Sri Lanka out of its worst economic crisis since independence?
Perhaps because of its own Covid-induced slowdown, China’s response to Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown has been low-key, to say the least.
Last month, Beijing offered to lend a “few hundred million dollars” for essential imports. But that amount falls far short of the US$500 million in foreign exchange Sri Lanka requires every month to cover its basic imports, according to the country’s central bank.
This has led to accusations that Beijing, which extended huge infrastructure loans to Sri Lanka back when times were good, has been conspicuous by its absence now the island is in crisis.
Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, suggested as much earlier this month when he said that China appeared to be shifting focus towards Southeast Asia and Africa, with South Asian nations no longer getting the same attention as before.
It’s almost as if he was suggesting that, far from being an “all-weather” friend, China had turned out to be a fair-weather alternative.
Not helping matters were comments Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made in April that seemed to suggest a condition of China’s continued assistance would be the prompt signing of a bilateral free trade agreement. At least, that’s how his call for an early start to negotiations on the pact was widely interpreted – and greeted with consternation – in Sri Lanka.
“All weather” or not, it is naïve to believe that one country will constantly look out for the interests of another, no matter how seemingly solid their friendship.
Apart from Sri Lanka, Pakistan has also been described as China’s “all-weather friend”, alongside African nations such as Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
But perhaps the term should be retired, along with expressions that describe China’s bilateral relations as “higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans”, or “stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey”.
Apart from sounding excessive and unconvincing, these expressions disregard an international relations truism: that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.
They also, unfortunately, paint China as a country that has over-promised and under-delivered.
India, meanwhile, has provided close to US$3 billion worth of assistance to Sri Lanka over the past few months, while its currency swaps, loan deferments and lines of credit for essentials have kept the island nation afloat.
As for its ties with Colombo, New Delhi said it will always be a “dependable partner and reliable friend”. Go figure.
-Maria Siow is a long-time China-based correspondent and analyst with keen interest in East Asia and this article was originally featured on scmp.com