Amid the continuous rise in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant across the world, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Maldives and Sri Lanka but failed to make gains as nationalist Sri Lankans and Maldivians felt that their sovereignty is being incrementally eroded by China through coercive use of debt-trap diplomacy, said a European-based think tank.
Sri Lankans, especially, seemed apprehensive that the dire economic situation of the country could present vulnerabilities for China to exploit, just as it had done earlier with the Hambantota Port, said the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS).
“However, it was not just the different set of pandemic rules for the minister and his privileged entourage that caused eyebrows to be raised, it was also the more deep-rooted concern that nationalist Sri Lankans and Maldivians had for their sovereignty, which they felt was being incrementally eroded by China through coercive use of debt-trap diplomacy,” the think tank said.
Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih has tried to limit Chinese influence and debt trapping by interacting more closely with India and other major players.
Despite the warm welcome in the Maldives and the cordial tone of the visit, Wang Yi did not seem to make many gains there.
Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih, who in 2018 replaced the pro-China leader Abdulla Yameen and has since scrupulously reverted to the island nation’s traditionally close, symbiotic ties with India, has played his cards well. Solih has tried to limit Chinese influence and debt trapping by interacting more closely with India and other major players, said the think tank.
Maldives, like Sri Lanka, is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which the United States (US) has labeled a “debt trap” for smaller nations. The Solih-led regime, therefore, has also sought to balance the equation with China by displaying more interest in the broader Indo-Pacific developments this year. It has even engaged with the US in its first annual security and defence dialogue, and is likely to host the US’ first diplomatic mission in the country soon, EFSAS reported.
Meanwhile, after concluding his Male visit, Wang flew into a Sri Lanka that is entangled in a deep economic crisis with foreign exchange reserves dropping to about USD1.6 billion in November 2021, enough only to sustain about one month of imports.
Further, mounting debt, a currency crisis, and high inflation had raised concerns about a possible sovereign default. Hence, a host of issues, including promoting tourism, investments, and the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic were discussed during Wang’s visit.
According to the think tank, a new proposal aimed at further expanding Chinese influence in the region was made by Wang Yi during his talks with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris. Wang proposed the establishment of a forum for the development of Indian Ocean island nations.
According to the Center for Global Development, both Sri Lanka and the Maldives are vulnerable to debt distress under China’s BRI. The Maldives is considered to be “highly vulnerable” while Sri Lanka is assessed to be “significantly vulnerable”, EFSAS reported.
According to the think tank, the Chinese dignitary and his delegation, nevertheless, chose to march on from the African leg of their escapades to South Asia even as the Chinese government dealt harshly with the very few positive cases that had found a way to escape China’s strict zero tolerance policy and creep into Chinese cities. Entire cities of millions were shut down completely even when the total number of cases detected was less than a handful.