The funding from International Development Finance Corp underscores renewed US and Indian efforts to loosen Beijing’s sway over Sri Lanka after Colombo borrowed heavily to splurge on Chinese port and highway projects before its economic meltdown last year.For Adani, US money may offer a stamp of legitimacy after allegations of fraud by short sellerHindenburg Research erased billions from the conglomerate’s market value earlier this year.
The deepwater West Container Terminal in Colombo is the US government agency’s largest infrastructure investment in Asia, and among its biggest globally. It will bolster Sri Lanka’s economic growth and “its regional economic integration, including with India, a key partner to both countries,” DFC said in a statement.
The funding is part of a global acceleration of DFC investments that totaled $9.3 billion in 2023.
“It is a high priority for the US to be active in the Indo-Pacific region,” Scott Nathan, the DFC’s chief executive officer told reporters in Colombo Wednesday. “It is obviously the engine of economic growth for the world.”
China had invested about $2.2 billion in the island nation as of the end of last year, its biggest foreign direct investor. US officials have publicly criticized Sri Lanka’s little-used southern Hambantota port as unsustainable and part of what it calls China’s “debt-trap diplomacy.”
Colombo’s port is one of the busiest in the Indian Ocean, given its proximity to the international shipping routes. Nearly half of all container ships pass through its waters. The DFC said it’s been operating at more than 90% utilization for two years and needs new capacity.
DFC said it will be working with sponsors John Keells Holdings Plc and Adani Ports & Special Economic Zone Ltd., relying on their “local experience and high-quality standards.”
The US funding may serve as an endorsement for the short seller-stung Adani Group, as well as the controversial port project in which it holds a majority stake. The conglomerate has been fighting a raft of corporate fraud allegations leveled by Hindenburg Research and various media investigations, which it has repeatedly denied.
“We see this as a reaffirmation by the international community of our vision, our capabilities and our governance,” Karan Adani, the tycoon’s son and chief executive officer at Adani Ports told reporters in Colombo on Wednesday. The port project, set to be operational by December 2024, will entail a total capital expenditure of $1 billion, he said, adding that dredging work was complete.
Shares in Adani Ports advanced as much as 2.7% in Mumbai trading — it’s one of the only two Adani Group stocks to have fully recovered from the Hindenburg hit. The conglomerate is also planning to invest $750 million to produce 500 megawatt wind energy in Sri Lanka, Karan Adani said.
Adani Group’s energy and port investments in Sri Lanka were criticized last year by some local lawmakers as opaque and closely tied to New Delhi’s interests. The Indian billionaire — a long-time supporter of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has challenged China in past public speeches — denied these claims, saying the investments addressed Sri Lanka’s needs.
‘Deep due diligence’
The US and DFC “are committed to high standards, that includes transparency, that includes deep due diligence of the partners that we invest with, or that we finance, that is highly progressed on anti-corruption and financial sustainability,” said Nathan. “I think the fundamentals of this project stands on their own.”
DFC, a development finance agency launched under the Trump administration, was established to aid developing nations while advancing US foreign policy goals. It struggled at first to stake out projects around the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But funding has accelerated in recent years and the agency has helped Washington close the development spending gap with China’s much more higher-profile Belt and Road Initiative, according to a new report from the AidData institute at William & Mary in Virginia.
The DFC’s funding will create “greater prosperity for Sri Lanka – without adding to sovereign debt – while at the same time strengthening the position of our allies across the region,” Nathan said in the statement.