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China’s Debt-Trap Diplomacy

NEW DELHI – If there is one thing at which China’s leaders truly excel, it is the use of economic tools to advance their country’s geostrategic interests. Through its $1 trillion “one belt, one road” initiative, China is supporting infrastructure projects in strategically located developing countries, often by extending huge loans to their governments. As a result, countries are becoming ensnared in a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to China’s influence.

Of course, extending loans for infrastructure projects is not inherently bad. But the projects that China is supporting are often intended not to support the local economy, but to facilitate Chinese access to natural resources, or to open the market for its low-cost and shoddy export goods. In many cases, China even sends its own construction workers, minimizing the number of local jobs that are created.

Several of the projects that have been completed are now bleeding money. For example, Sri Lanka’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, which opened in 2013 near Hambantota, has been dubbed the world’s emptiest. Likewise, Hambantota’s Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port remains largely idle, as does the multibillion-dollar Gwadar port in Pakistan. For China, however, these projects are operating exactly as needed: Chinese attack submarines have twice docked at Sri Lankan ports, and two Chinese warships were recently pressed into service for Gwadar port security.

In a sense, it is even better for China that the projects don’t do well. After all, the heavier the debt burden on smaller countries, the greater China’s own leverage becomes. Already, China has used its clout to push Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand to block a united ASEAN stand against China’s aggressive pursuit of its territorial claims in the South China Sea.