Sri Lanka has a debt problem. After more than a decade of taking out huge loans to build large-scale infrastructure — most of which hasn’t yet produced adequate returns — the country is now struggling to make payments, and is looking for another way out.
A potential exit strategy was to offer China debt for equity swaps, which Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently proposed to China’s Ambassador Yi Xianliang. China was offered varying degrees of control over some of Sri Lanka’s biggest infrastructure projects, including Mattala International Airport and portions of the Hambantota deep sea port, and Sri Lanka would receive some debt relief.
China’s response to this offer was publicized earlier today in Colombo’s Sunday Times: We’re not interested. The Chinese ambassador replied that “it was not possible according to China’s laws.”
However, China was clear that it extends its “fullest cooperation” and that such deals should be conducted via investors on proper commercial terms.
This point is key: while China’s government will not swap debt for equity they will help clear the road for Chinese companies to take over key projects in Sri Lanka. IZP, a Chinese informational technology company, has been put forward as a potential purchaser of Mattala International Airport, while COSCO is looking into expanding operations at the Hambantota deep sea port.
The problem, both for Sri Lanka and for any would-be investor, is that many of the large projects in question are losing money fast, and may ultimately prove to be economically unsustainable — at least without a massive amount of additional investment, more infrastructure, and a miracle or two. With just two flights per day, Mattala International is more than likely the most underused international airport on the planet and the Hambantota port is also running at severe under-capacity, while the brand new and fully modern highways that run through this region are mostly devoid of vehicles.