The narrative wrongfully portrays both Beijing and the developing countries it deals with.
China, we are told, inveigles poorer countries into taking out loan after loan to build expensive infrastructure that they can’t afford and that will yield few benefits, all with the end goal of Beijing eventually taking control of these assets from its struggling borrowers. As states around the world pile on debt to combat the coronavirus pandemic and bolster flagging economies, fears of such possible seizures have only amplified.
Seen this way, China’s internationalization—as laid out in programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative—is not simply a pursuit of geopolitical influence but also, in some tellings, a weapon. Once a country is weighed down by Chinese loans, like a hapless gambler who borrows from the Mafia, it is Beijing’s puppet and in danger of losing a limb.
The prime example of this is the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. As the story goes, Beijing pushed Sri Lanka into borrowing money from Chinese banks to pay for the project, which had no prospect of commercial success. Onerous terms and feeble revenues eventually pushed Sri Lanka into default, at which point Beijing demanded the port as collateral, forcing the Sri Lankan government to surrender control to a Chinese firm.
The Trump administration pointed to Hambantota to warn of China’s strategic use of debt: In 2018, former Vice President Mike Pence called it “debt-trap diplomacy”—a phrase he used through the last days of the administration—and evidence of China’s military ambitions. Last year, erstwhile Attorney General William Barr raised the case to argue that Beijing is “loading poor countries up with debt, refusing to renegotiate terms, and then taking control of the infrastructure itself.”
As Michael Ondaatje, one of Sri Lanka’s greatest chroniclers, once said, “In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts.” And the debt-trap narrative is just that: a lie, and a powerful one.
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