In September 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping officially opened the construction site of Port City Colombo in Sri Lanka, which was marketed as a significant location in China’s worldwide infrastructure endeavor, known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
The city is striving to become a competitor to Dubai and Singapore, offering a financial hub, luxurious villas by the beach, and a marina for international yachts. China has already put in $1.4 billion towards the project, which is expected to be finished by 2041.
Some individuals from Sri Lanka have expressed concern that the high-reaching undertaking may not provide many advantages, harm the environment, and burden the country with a large and useless project. In the United Kingdom, members of parliament have raised worries that it could potentially become a Chinese military base in the Indo-Pacific region.
A coordinated public relations effort has made a strong attempt to persuade investors and critics. On the Facebook page of Port City Colombo Limited, which is owned by the government-owned China Communications Construction Company, there are multiple pictures showcasing one of its biggest supporters: the United Kingdom’s new foreign secretary, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton.
The website quotes Cameron as saying that the upcoming metropolis will offer countless opportunities and contribute to connecting people and promoting overall prosperity.
The previous leader’s endorsement of the project funded by Beijing has sparked requests for complete transparency regarding his personal interests to avoid any potential conflicts with his current position as the United Kingdom’s chief diplomat.
On Friday, Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chair, urged Cameron to reveal all of his financial involvements, even those he has already given up, before returning to the cabinet. She expressed this in a letter to Rishi Sunak.
Luke de Pulford, the leader of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, whose objective is to encourage a global reaction to the obstacles presented by China, expressed concerns regarding the vetting process for the new foreign secretary’s appointment. According to him, the foreign secretary has been advocating for a development that could potentially serve as a Chinese military base in the Indo-Pacific region.
During a personal trip to Sri Lanka in January, Cameron visited the Port City Colombo project and met with President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Managing Director Yang Lu. The development, which spans 665 acres of reclaimed land, is currently underway.
According to Politico, a news organization focusing on politics and policies, Cameron was a speaker at two gatherings in September that aimed to promote Colombo Port City in the United Arab Emirates.
According to media outlets in Sri Lanka, there were reports that he was offered a payment of $210,000 to endorse a development project supported by China at certain events. However, Cameron’s office has declined to comment on these arrangements. A source close to the former prime minister stated that his office does not acknowledge the figures mentioned in the press reports from Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s minister of investment promotion, Dilum Amunugama, informed the Observer that the Port City Colombo project, backed by China, and the government’s Colombo Port City Economic Commission were responsible for hiring Lord Cameron.
He stated that the two parties involved had interacted with him and that the Port City project had taken care of it. He also mentioned that the government was determined for Cameron to highlight the involvement of Sri Lanka in the project, rather than it being perceived solely as a Chinese venture.
Cameron’s team has not provided a statement regarding the charges, but did mention that the speaking engagements were arranged through the Washington Speakers Bureau and the contract was with KPMG Sri Lanka. KPMG is noted as a consultant for the Port City Colombo project.
There may be a lesson to be learned from the Chinese-funded project that Cameron has enthusiastically supported. A previous collaboration between China and Sri Lanka, the Hambantota Port Development Project, led to a Chinese company obtaining a 99-year lease on the port due to the high levels of debt in Sri Lanka. According to a research report in July, China may potentially establish a naval base at Hambantota within the next two to five years.
Over the course of six years as prime minister, Cameron expressed strong support for strengthening ties between the UK and China. In September 2012, he invited Ren Zhengfei, the head of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, to Downing Street for a friendly conversation, praising the company’s commitment to investing an additional £1.3bn in the UK. Three years later, President Xi’s official visit to the UK solidified the “golden era” in the relationship between Britain and China.
However, after Cameron’s resignation in 2016 due to his failure in the EU referendum, subsequent Conservative prime ministers have adopted a more cautious stance towards China.
In July of 2020, the government led by Boris Johnson declared its intention to prohibit the use of Huawei in the UK’s 5G network. Operators have been instructed to eliminate the technology by 2027, resulting in a £500 million expense for BT. Additionally, members of Parliament have expressed apprehension about China’s impact on the country’s nuclear power industry.
John Strand, the CEO of Strand Consult, a company that conducts research in the telecommunications industry, stated that Cameron’s effort to attract Chinese investments coincided with a growing acceptance for friendlier interactions.
“He mentioned that perceptions towards China have significantly shifted in the UK,” he stated. “I comprehend the concerns of those who fear a potential lenient stance towards China. If he promotes a soft strategy, there will likely be intense backlash.”
In September of 2016, Cameron resigned from his position as an MP, three months after stepping down from his role at Downing Street. He aimed to take advantage of the relationship between the UK and China and traveled to Beijing in September of 2017 to negotiate a potential new investment fund with China’s vice premier, Ma Kai.
In the following month, Cameron had a meeting with Philip Hammond, who was the chancellor at the time, to request government support for the fund. In December 2017, after a meeting between Hammond and Ma Kai in Beijing, the UK government officially backed the project.
According to a note from HM Treasury, both parties have expressed support for the idea of creating a UK-China investment fund with an initial amount of $1 billion. The fund will be managed by various institutions from both countries, with the involvement of the Rt Hon David Cameron.
Although both countries provided support, it seems that the fund was not able to obtain the necessary backing. According to a report from the parliamentary intelligence and security committee in July 2023, Cameron’s position as vice-president of the UK-China investment fund may have been orchestrated by the Chinese government in order to strengthen the credibility of Chinese investments and promote the overall image of China.
Although the new fund was not launched, Cameron was able to establish connections with the Chinese business community. He made an appearance at UBS’s prominent Greater China Conference in January 2017.
Cameron stated at the event that China is a growing power in the emerging market. He also suggested that investing in each other’s countries would be beneficial. In 2018, at a separate event in Shanghai, business leaders were given the chance to have dinner with Cameron and a photo for a fee of £12,000.
After leaving his political career, Cameron is no longer obligated to reveal his business affiliations. However, as a member of the House of Lords, he must now declare any relevant interests that may impact his decisions in parliament. His connections to China will be closely examined. It is important to note that he is not required to disclose any payments received prior to serving as foreign secretary.
He may face scrutiny for his involvement in the scandal surrounding Greensill Capital, a financial services company that collapsed in March 2021. This included lobbying the chancellor and a trip to the Saudi desert with the company’s CEO, Lex Greensill, and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The scandal is currently under criminal investigation, but Cameron himself is not being investigated.
Cameron’s representative stated that he participated in two events in the UAE, coordinated by the Washington Speakers Bureau, to support Port City Colombo in Sri Lanka. The events were contracted by KPMG Sri Lanka and Cameron’s involvement came after meeting with Sri Lanka’s president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, earlier in the year.
I have not communicated with China or any Chinese business regarding these speaking events. The Sri Lankan government fully endorses the Port City project.