China’s Malleable Sovereignty Along the Belt and Road Initiative: The Case of the 99-year Chinese Lease of Hambantota Port, N.Y.U. Journal of International Law & Politics 51 (2019).
Abstract: Since China and Sri Lank signed a 99-year Concession Agreement for the 15,000 acres of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka in 2017 as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), media outlets and academics have used the Agreement as a proof of China’s new interventionist and expansionist attitude, realized through debt-trap diplomacy. The construction of infrastructure in the countries along the Belt and Road, including the development of the Hambantota Port, is creating new Chinese interests to protect outside of China’s sovereign borders, and may transform its stance on sovereignty and non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. The People’s Republic of China has a reputation of being the stronghold of Westphalia sovereignty. However, the BRI and Chinese increased investments abroad may modify its attitude toward sovereignty. In protecting its interests and its nationals abroad, is China adopting similar legal regimes and techniques to those adopted by Western powers in the 19th and 20th centuries to project their imperial power and encroach on other countries’ sovereignty — including that of the Qing empire — or is China taking a different path? This article, after using local media reports and interviews of important stakeholders, looks at the available sections of the Concession Agreement of Hambantota Port and contextualizes it in the light of international law and evolving Chinese conceptions of sovereignty. It argues that China, relying on the contested and political notion of sovereignty, is using similar legal techniques as Western powers used in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that its understanding of sovereignty continues to be malleable in order to accommodate new evolving interests. Specifically, with the unfolding of the BRI and Chinese investments abroad, China increasingly must protect its investments, property, and people outside of its sovereign borders, and this can compromise the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference.