China just requested 15,000 acres of land in southern Sri Lanka for the creation of a special economic zone that will reputedly create one million jobs, according to the country’s Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade.
15,000 acres is roughly 60 square kilometers, which is significantly larger than Hartford, Connecticut or Providence, Rhode Island.
This expanse of land, if granted, will be in the Hambantota region, which has been a punchline of sorts over the past couple of years in Sri Lanka due to its massive and expensive infrastructure projects that have so far failed to come to fruition. This area includes what is probably the world’s emptiest international airport, a massive $1.4 billion deep sea port that is running at under-capacity, a world-class conference center that doesn’t really host many conferences, and a seldom used cricket stadium. These projects were almost completely funded with Chinese money, and helped bury Sri Lanka $8 billion deep in debt to China.
It was once the dream of Sri Lanka’s former president to turn Hambantota, his extremely rural hometown, into the country’s number two city, and he spared no expense trying to make this happen. When he unexpectedly lost the election in 2015 to Maithripala Sirisena, who ran on a platform which accused the incumbent of being too favorable to China and trashing relations with India and the West, many big Chinese-invested projects were called off. Construction on the Hambantota deep sea port was halted and SriLankan Airline’s hub at Mattala International Airport was liquidated, as Hambantota proverbially ground to a halt.
Now, relations between Sri Lanka and China appear to be booming, and the Hambantota dream is looking to be moving closer to a reality. Phase II of the deep sea port is now being constructed, the Mattala airport is looking for private investors, and the SEZ, if actually created, could potentially provide the synergy to pull it all together.