- - Monday, December 3, 2018

The annual G20 Summit reminded us that disregarded countries also can be opportunities. As the escalating U.S. trade war with Communist China dominates attention, smaller countries that Americans don’t think much about are suddenly important pieces of the Chinese chessboard. They offer an important lesson in the perils of our dismissive strategic engagement, but also an opportunity to challenge China’s growing national security hegemony while not harming America’s consumers and economy.

China has what it calls a “String of Pearls” strategy to dominate small countries in Southeast and South Asia — a maritime Silk Road along the world’s most vital maritime route that the U.S. Navy and its allies will be hard-pressed to counter. Stretching from the South China Seas to the Horn of Africa, the route is linked with deep-water “commercial” ports and bases — the so-called pearls — and with them China will tighten its string of control in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

China’s island-building and outright appropriation of islands in the South China Sea — and America’s seemingly too-little, too-late opposition — is well-known. But it is the Madives and Sri Lanka, the largely ignored but critically significant “Little Pearls” of South Asia, that still offer hope.

In recent years, China has pumped resources into the diminutive island nation of the Maldives. It established a Joint Ocean Observation Station on the Mukunudhoo atoll near a crucial shipping route close to India. This follows China’s previous acquisition of 17 other islands in the same area, raising concerns that the real and unstated purpose is for naval dominance. Last March, shortly after announcing the JOOS initiative, Beijing sent a combat naval force there to reassure the pro-China Maldivian president during a declared state-of-emergency.

Meanwhile, China’s huge infrastructure “investments” have driven Maldives into an almost unpayable debt equal to more than 25% of the archipelago’s GDP.

To the opposite side of India’s southern tip, Sri Lanka is becoming a more important “Little Pearl” on China’s string. The George W. Bush administration halted U.S. aid to Sri Lanka in 2007, leaving Communist China to jump in and fill the vacuum. Since then, the state-owned China Communication Construction Company (CCCC) funded a multibillion-dollar “Port City” project in the port city capital of Colombo, with over $13 billion expected to be invested in this project over the next 20 years. Beijing is poised to monopolize the financial and development market of the benign but geo-strategically important island nation.

Meanwhile, China is building a billion-dollar deep water complex called Hambantota Port on the south of Sri Lanka, about 10 nautical miles from the main shipping route between Asia and Europe. The port project gives the Chinese primary operational control of the port for the next 99 years. Smaller deals, such as the $50 million to be paid to a state-run Chinese company to augment the state-run Jaya Container Terminal, are also completed fairly regularly and continue to add to financial leverage that the Chinese are accumulating over Sri Lanka.

With Sri Lanka’s debt, much of it to China, continuing to balloon out of control, Beijing has seized on this as an opportunity to gain further control of Sri Lanka’s financial future through its manipulative loan collection practices and by controlling of some of the country’s most significant commercial facilities, and capturing Sri Lanka in an $8 billion debt-trap.

Making matters worse is Sri Lanka’s ongoing constitutional crisis that has paralyzed the country politically for several months — and promises to continue to do so for another year. The Chinese have taken advantage of the crisis, squeezing Sri Lank for more and more development deals.

Sri Lanka’s political leadership is paralyzed. In late October, President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his prime minister and appointed his arch-rival Mahinda Rajapaksa, the capable and still-popular former president, in his place. This rare moment of realpolitik and unity in Sri Lanka was short-loved, however, because the incumbent prime minister refuses to step aside. Now the Supreme Court of the nation is seemingly overburdened with being the sole entity responsible for solving the constitutional stand-off and re-instating a functional government.

Without effective leadership, Sri Lanka will continue to drift into the hands of the Chinese — which the obdurate former prime minister seemingly welcomes. Only a snap election, such as a plebiscite, can break the stalemate and empower the Sri Lankan people to pick their own prime minister — and to break Chinese Communist economic, military, and perhaps political domination of their country.

The growth of China’s commercial investment and soft power in South Asia’s “Little Pearls” bring Beijing closer to achieving their global ambitions. They also erode democratic values and processes in nations like the Maldives and Sri Lanka, whose democracies have begun to crumble under the weight of burgeoning debt and influence from the power-driven, Communist hegemon.

The G20 summit is an opportunity to highlight these troubling facts. The Trump Administration must not only expose Beijing’s economically disastrous developmental schemes as the manipulative power grabs that they really are. It must also actively engage the vulnerable small nations targeted in China’s String of Pearls. In doing so, the United States can strike at China’s mercantile and military hegemony while gaining much-needed leverage over the Red Tiger’s other economic and fiscal bullying, and help to free vulnerable countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives from indenture. It’s time to free China’s “Little Pearls.”

• Michael Bender is a senior security analyst with Georgetown Research.

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