Britain’s surprising new focus in its bid to undermine China
A series of articles on the BBC website over the past few weeks highlighting concerns over Beijing’s assistance to Sri Lanka shows how the British government is worried about its own fading influence.
On Monday, the BBC published a feature focusing on a Chinese-funded development in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, under the heading “Colombo Port City: A new Dubai or a Chinese enclave?”
The aim is to turn the area into a new financial centre, but the article’s tone was predictably slanted in a negative way and emphasised the narrative of a “debt trap”– that Sri Lanka has handed over a port to Beijing because it could not pay its debts. The suggestion was that Beijing is engaged in geopolitical manoeuvring.
The article, which described Sri Lanka as “India’s backyard,” also took aim at the country’s prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and suggested that it has “much to fear” from the project as China seeks to “tighten its grip”.
What is even more eye-opening, however, is that this isn’t the first article of this nature the BBC has published. In 2022 alone, it has run other front page pieces with headlines including “Crisis-hit Sri Lanka asks China to restructure its debt” and “China: Is it burdening poor countries with unsustainable debt?”.
In addition, late last year, Deborah Brautigam, a scholar who has long disproven claims of the idea of the Chinese debt trap, engaged in an interview with the BBC on China and Sri Lanka – only to subsequently complain that the broadcaster had edited it to misrepresent her words and make it look like she was pushing this narrative. It is abundantly clear that the BBC is promoting a very specific line regarding China’s relationship with Sri Lanka.
The BBC has a very obvious political agenda against China. It won’t admit it, insisting that it is impartial, but the reality, as is frequently demonstrated, is that it ultimately advocates the British government’s foreign policy. It is very much doing so when it comes to China, similar to how it acted on behalf of UK government messaging during the initial Cold War.
The international version of its website carries negative stories about China on a near-daily basis, often using emotive language, such as when it accused Beijing of imposing starvation and death in lockdown-stricken Xi’an. It’s hard for any serious person to say that the BBC is impartial. It has also been a leader in promoting the narrative of human rights abuses in Xinjiang against China. But when it comes to Sri Lanka in particular, there is an interesting assessment to be made.
While the island has become the staple example of China’s so-called “debt trap diplomacy,” it is noticeable that the BBC in particular focuses much more on it than the American media does. This shows that there is a strictly British dimension to this issue, and that stands to reason, given that Sri Lanka is a former dominion of the British Empire.
When you take into account how Sri Lanka was previously a strategic base for the Royal Navy, and also consider Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s“network of liberty” – which professes to “bring countries into the orbit of free market democracies” – it is obvious that the British government sees itself in competition with China for influence over Colombo.
The country sits at a critical geostrategic junction. It’s in the middle of the Indian Ocean and just off the coast of India itself, so integral to the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also a key juncture of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The two countries have a strong relationship because they subscribe to the ideas of the non-aligned movement and have similar values as post-colonial states who seek norms of national sovereignty and non-interference. Sri Lanka, in particular, has a history of ethno-sectarian conflicts which has put it at odds with the west and created sympathy towards China.
Whilst Colombo inevitably has an important relationship with its closest neighbour, India, it does not seek to be dominated by the country and therefore uses China as a strategic hedge in order to uphold its own political space. The mainstream media and BBC portray the island as a desperate cash-strapped country reliant on Chinese financial support, but it’s simply not true. In reality, Sri Lanka owes more to Japan individually than China.
Beijing has become a preferred partner of late because it is politically expedient for the government and comes with no strings attached. The truth is there is no debt trap, only a politically shrewd government.
However, in the wake of Brexit, Britain is developing a foreign policy where it sees its former colonies as its own rightful dominions and – using the ideology of British exceptionalism – believes it should now compete against China in these nations.
When Barbados scrapped the British monarchy last year and became a republic, the right-wing press in London blamed China and accused it of ‘buying’ the island, highlighting their deepening economic ties. It was no coincidence that at the same time, Truss launched her fund and began openly framing international finance as a battle for influence for “free market democracies.”
It can be argued, in turn, that Britain sees Sri Lanka in the same way – that it was a righteous overseer of the island which acted in its best interests, and now faces a battle over increasing Chinese influence.
In line with these geopolitical objectives, the BBC is repeatedly producing negative, critical coverage of Beijing’s dealings with the island in order to interfere in its politics and intentionally undermine support for China there. It continues to hammer the idea that the island is not dealing with Beijing on its own terms, but is being financially and politically subjugated.
One can only hope that Sri Lankans will not be fooled by this effort. After all, the country that ruled them for 130 years, waging some very violent conflicts, should not get to decide who their enemies are.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.