New Delhi: China, which frequently uses disinformation campaigns as a weapon against countries including India, is now itself facing a “battle of perceptions” following the massive chaos and terrible turmoil in Sri Lanka. With Colombo in free fall following its unprecedented financial calamity, the widespread perception at the global level is that it is Beijing that fed the crisis in Sri Lanka.

So now the Chinese officials and diplomats are being forced to explain this perception no matter where they go. “Countries from Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives to those in Africa, everywhere questions are being hurled at the visiting Chinese officials and diplomats, seeking clarification on the perception that Sri Lanka is an example of Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy”, top diplomatic sources monitoring developments in China vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan crisis told The Sunday Guardian. “Even a top official in Myanmar asked Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi a similar question,” sources said. “The countries where China has tremendous strategic and financial footprints are cautious after the Colombo chaos,” sources added.

While maintaining a “conspicuous” silence on what is happening in Sri Lanka, China is operating its backchannel diplomacy to “clear the air” on whatever perception is existing in terms of “Beijing being behind Sri Lanka’s crisis”, sources said. Highly-placed sources told The Sunday Guardian that “The Chinese government is using its state media to refute the allegation, and has deputed diplomats to reach out to different countries in a bid to clarify its position. It has chosen only those countries where its projects are underway on a large scale.” “Djibouti, where China has its military base, is one of the nations where it has sent several diplomats with this assignment,” sources said.

The state-run Global Times, in its editorial on the Sri Lankan crisis, said the US and the West should not have twisted excitement towards the Sri Lanka crisis, asserting that the turmoil was not caused by Colombo’s debt to Beijing. “Other media outlets are serving similar content at the behest of the Chinese government,” officials point out.

“While avoiding to be on record, Chinese officials in private meetings are saying that China’s share in Sri Lanka’s debt stands at 10%, the same as Japan’s,” sources said. Diplomats here say that most Chinese debts are off-the-book and off-record, like commercial lending and so on and so forth. “But they will not refer to it publicly as these debts are not shown on government records,” they added.

While trying to trap economically weaker and poor countries for its strategic advantage to further its agenda against India, China is now grappling with this perception problem. “The issue is a serious one, and China knows how sensitive the situation is. That is the reason Chinese spokespersons are maintaining deafening silence on the developments in Colombo,” said an official.

Beijing did not offer any official comment even on the exit of Sri Lanka’s China-friendly President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The only reaction that came from China was when the Presidential Palace was stormed. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs then stated that it hoped Sri Lanka would “overcome the current difficulties and strive to restore stability, revitalise the economy and improve people’s livelihoods at an early date”. Speaking after Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in May, and despite close links to the Rajapaksas, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson decided to dodge questions on his resignation. Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “We have noted the latest developments in Sri Lanka and are closely following the situation.”

Sources say that the US, the UK, and other major powers of the world are also watchful of how China is silent at a time when Sri Lanka is in deep trouble. Its silence is being viewed as a strategy not to be under global focus at this point of time, analysts believe.

“India and other countries will definitely bring China’s dubious activities to the notice of the United Nations at an appropriate time,” officials said. However, Beijing is said to have alerted its diplomats at the UN and other global forums to try and “counter” the perception about China’s dubious role in the entire development. The perception is also that China is trying to use the current adversity as an opportunity to its advantage, given Sri Lanka’s strategic importance in the Indian Ocean.

What is worrying China at this point of time is also its big investments that are at stake in the island nation. “Sri Lanka’s situation has eroded China’s credibility to a large extent, and if other poor countries refuse to be in its club, then it will be a problem for Beijing and a setback to its agenda to trap the small but strategically important nations,” says a diplomat, adding, “this is what is also giving China anxious moments.” “It is in this context that the perception about China being one of the important factors behind the fall of Sri Lanka’s economy is troubling Beijing,” he added.