Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

Will Gotabaya Revisit Sri Lanka’s Hambantota ‘Debt Trap’ With China?

The new president’s election manifesto pledged to “revisit” the 99 year lease transfer of Hambantota port.

Ankit Panda
Will Gotabaya Revisit Sri Lanka’s Hambantota ‘Debt Trap’ With China?
Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

On Sunday, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former Sri Lankan defense chief accused of human rights violations, won the country’s presidential elections. Gotabaya rode a wave of Sinhala nationalist sentiment and security concerns, which were made all the more acute after this year’s deadly Easter bombings, claimed by a local Sri Lankan extremist group pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. His victory fits neatly into a narrative about South Asian states turning gradually to illiberal democracy (at least, so writes James Crabtree at the Nikkei Asian Review). He was sworn in on Monday.

Here at The Diplomat, Sudha Ramachandran sums up what might be expected of Gotabaya on domestic and geopolitical issues. “Much will depend on the new government’s relations with Beijing,” she concludes. Much of the pre-election commentary focused on Gotabaya’s likely approach to China through the frame of the tremendous rapprochement between Beijing and Colombo that had taken place during the presidential tenure of his brother, Mahinda. (Mahinda, term-limited from seeking the presidency, is a likely contender for the prime ministership, parliamentary politic permitting.)

It was Mahinda’s decisive turn away from Sri Lanka’s neighboring giant, India, and toward China that resulted in the conclusion of several deals with China that saw Colombo heavily indebted. The most infamous example of this excess is the case of the Hambantota port, which stands to date as the best known “debt trap diplomacy” posterchild for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Under the outgoing president, Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka was left with no choice but to acquiesce to a deeply unpopular debt-for-equity swap with China, resulting in the transfer of the port, which sits astride strategically pivotal sea lanes, on a 99-year-lease.

Gotabaya’s precise path with China remains largely indeterminate, but New Delhi and the South Asia strategic commentariat largely expect Colombo to view Beijing more favorably once again. (Sirisena, to be sure, did not alienate China on any significant level.) But one source of interest to South Asia watchers should be the language that appeared in the political manifesto of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)—Gotabaya’s party.

The fate of Hambantota Port receives considerable attention in the manifesto. “Hambantota port is a national asset and was defined as a strategic asset by us previously, and the intention was never to sell or lease the port for 99 years,” the manifesto notes on page 58. “We will make it a priority to revisit the already signed agreement with the Chinese government and explore ways as to how best we could bring about a win-win for the two countries.”

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The document goes on to pledge that Gotabaya would “develop Hambantota port as an International, Industrial and Services Port, and establish facilities for local businesses to provide services such as Ship maintenance and repair, ship chandeling, etc., to cater all vessels.” Making matters more interesting, in the election, Gotabaya carried Hambantota District over his main opponent, Sajith Premadasa, in the election. Premadasa sits in parliament for Hambantota.

Manifesto pledges don’t always find their way into policymaking and Gotabaya may choose to sharply depart from these pledges, but we should also recall the sharp protests that took place over the transfer of the port to China back in 2017. For a president championing nationalism like Gotabaya, Hambantota’s fate could turn into an important issue in relations with China. Will Gotabaya find himself joining the Maldives’ Ibrahim Solih, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammed, and even Pakistan’s Imran Khan as another regional leader seeking to revisit the terms of previously agreed big-ticket deals with Beijing? We’ll know soon enough.