David Cameron’s controversial link with a China-loving ex-MEP – POLITICO

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LONDON — As Westminster debated the wisdom — or otherwise — of David Cameron’s return to frontline politics this week, one former colleague was in no doubt.

“Cameron is in the right place at the right time,” wrote former Tory MEP Nirj Deva of the new U.K. foreign secretary. “There are very few if any international leaders who could lead on so many fronts with knowledge, deep relationships and meticulous attention to detail.”

Deva’s glowing appraisal was hardly surprising. The pair are friendly — and picture after picture shows him and Cameron together at events around the world.

But Cameron’s association with the ex-MEP raises further questions about his own past involvement with Chinese investment projects which could cause a conflict with Britain’s core strategic interests.

During a 20-year career in Brussels, Deva was well known for building links with China, even founding an EU-China friendship group that was later wound up after concerns about its closeness to Beijing.

Deva now acts as a trusted adviser to Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe — and this year played an instrumental role in enlisting Cameron to raise cash for a controversial Chinese-built port in Sri Lanka, which critics fear may eventually act as an outpost for Beijing.

POLITICO reported last month how in September 2023, weeks before his unexpected appointment as U.K. foreign secretary, Cameron flew to the UAE to drum up investment for Port City Colombo, part of China’s sweeping Belt and Road scheme to increase its power and influence across Asia.

In the UAE, Cameron appeared on stage with Deva and urged Middle Eastern investors to pour their cash into the project.

China-skeptic Tories are now urging Cameron to clarify his association with the scheme and publish full details of his engagements with China.

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who has been sanctioned by Beijing for criticizing its human rights record, said there appeared to be “clear conflicts of interest” in Cameron’s activities.

“I hope there will be an explanation of what the new foreign secretary’s involvements were in China prior to his new appointment by the government,” Duncan Smith said. “Will the details of his contracts be disclosed, including the remuneration and contractual obligations?”

A spokesperson for Cameron said he had “not engaged in any way with China or any Chinese company about these speaking events.”

During a 20-year career in Brussels, Deva (left) was well known for building links with China | Georges Gobet/AFP via Getty Images

From MEP to presidential adviser

Nirj — or Niranjan — Deva was born in Colombo in 1948 and holds both Sri Lankan and British citizenship. Having studied in Britain he became a Tory MP in the 1990s, overlapping with Cameron’s first government job as a Tory special adviser.

Deva later served as a Tory MEP between 1999 and 2019, becoming known for building an extensive network of contacts. At one point he ran for president of the European Parliament — coming a distant second to Martin Schulz — and even tried, unsuccessfully, to become U.N. secretary-general.

Deva also became known for building links to China.

His MEP expense returns show he regularly accepted hospitality from Beijing, taking trips to China paid for by the Beijing government in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018, including business class flights and five-star hotels.

In 2014, POLITICO reported that Deva had failed to declare a Chinese state-funded flight and hotel stay, updating his register of interests only after a warning from a cross-party advisory group.

Deva had also founded the EU-China Friendship Group back in 2006, which helped to organize more than a dozen trips to China for other EU lawmakers.

The friendship group later came under scrutiny over its proximity to Beijing.

Gai Lin, a Chinese national who had been employed in Deva’s office, worked as secretary-general of the group until it was disbanded. Lin’s ties to groups linked to the Chinese Communist Party have since attracted attention.

Lin was affiliated with a provincial Chinese “people’s association for friendship for foreign countries,” which belongs to a network of soft-power cultural institutions linked to China’s foreign affairs establishment.

The Czech think tank Sinopsis said in a 42-page paper on the EU-China Friendship group that Gai’s involvement amounted to “evidence of the direct connection between the group and the CPP’s foreign affairs system.”

Contacted by POLITICO this week, Deva said: “I haven’t been to China for five or six years now. What I did do though, was to bring … Asia into the EU. When I became an MEP I found that the EU was so Afro-centric and had no connection with the fastest-growing part of the world. [They had] no links to China, which is an engine of economic growth.”

“At that time China was not seen as a threat at all … Now, I don’t know why, it has become a threat.”

Rishi Sunak brought Cameron back to frontline politics | Leon NealGetty Images

Of the friendship group’s dissolution Deva said: “I found that out later, much after my time … I don’t really understand what happened.”

Making introductions

Deva confirmed to POLITICO that it was he who made the key introduction which secured Cameron’s involvement in efforts to drum up investment cash for Port City Colombo just a few weeks ago.

Deva said he went to see Cameron while the former PM was holidaying in Sri Lanka with his family in January 2023. The pair were friendly from Deva’s time in London and Brussels; Cameron had attended a remembrance event that Deva hosted in London on the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s state funeral in September 2022.  

Deva said he set up a lunch between Cameron and Sri Lankan President Wickremesinghe, who asked the former U.K. PM to help raise funds for the Port City Colombo project. “I was just a functionary,” Deva said.

Cameron went to see the project site alongside Deva that same month. Photos of the visit were uploaded online and used to promote it internationally.

Cameron’s involvement in touting the project to investors was subsequently secured via the Washington Speakers’ Bureau, which managed his speaking engagements at that time.

Six weeks ago, Cameron flew to the UAE to speak at two glitzy investment events, one in Dubai and the other in Abu Dhabi. These took the form of an on-stage conversation with Deva about the merits of the project.

Dilum Amunugawa, Sri Lanka’s investment minister who attended both events, told POLITICO in October that the decision to involve Cameron was taken by “the Chinese company, not the government.”

Deva disputes this. “It was the president of Sri Lanka,” he said. “I was there at the lunch — I arranged the lunch … The government has devolved the powers [to an external body], so the minister of investment has nothing to do with it.”

On stage in the UAE

As he drummed up investor support for the Port City project in the UAE, Cameron sought to downplay Chinese involvement.

“The fact is, it is owned by Sri Lanka,” Cameron told the audience. “It will be governed by rules made by Sri Lankans.

“Yes, the Chinese have invested — and the port reclamation was absolutely essential — but it’s now for others to invest alongside that and try and make a success of this project.”

David Cameron has been trying to downplay his involvement in various Chinese investment projects | Andy RainEFE via EPA

But the project Cameron was vouching for remains hugely contentious, in Sri Lanka and far beyond.

CHEC Port City Colombo Co. — a unit of the Chinese government-controlled China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) — invested $1.4 billion, and in return obtained the right to use 62 hectares of land on a 99-year lease from the Sri Lankan government.

The CCCC was sanctioned in 2020 by the U.S. government, which said it was one of a number of companies involved building artificial islands for Chinese military purposes in the disputed South China Sea.

Cameron was also keen to laud the port city’s strategic location. “It has this great strategic place in the Indo-Pacific with its neighbouring relationship with India,” Cameron said glowingly during his talk.

It is precisely that strategic position which critics fear could make Port City Colombo such a valuable asset to the Chinese.

The legal arrangements, too, are highly contentious.

Control of the project has been handed to an external commission whose members are appointed by the Sri Lankan government. The port city will sit outside Sri Lanka’s tax regime and is intended to rival Singapore and Dubai as a financial district.

In 2021, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled that elements of the structure were unconstitutional and would require a referendum. The U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, cautioned the district could become a “haven for money launderers” and other illegal activities.

But Sri Lanka’s parliament approved the legal structure a month later, after amendments were made in response to the court’s concerns.   

Warnings have also been issued about the port city’s environmental impact, while some critics say its construction will bring no benefits to ordinary Sri Lankans, a quarter of whom live in poverty.

Debt trap?

Speaking to POLITICO, Deva — like Cameron — said the Port City Colombo project was “entirely owned and run by the government of Sri Lanka.”

“It has nothing to do with the Chinese. The Chinese just built it, and the Chinese are waiting to be paid. The Sri Lankans haven’t paid the Chinese — and of course, what happens when you don’t pay your contractors?

“The government of Sri Lanka owed the Chinese $1.5 billion, so to keep them quiet the government said ‘OK, listen, we don’t have the money yet, but when we sell this to the developers, we’ll pay you off.’ And so they’re waiting.”

Deva added that the Sri Lankan government ultimately stood to raise $15 billion from the project, 10 times the amount it owes China. He said that Cameron’s involvement had helped raise cash to help Sri Lanka repay its debts.

But critics fear such arrangements are part of China’s “debt-trap diplomacy.” China has poured billions of dollars into loans for Sri Lankan infrastructure projects over the past decade which have deepened the country’s debt burden.

Control over a Chinese-built port in Hambantota, around 300 kilometers from Port City Colombo and close to the world’s busiest east-west shipping route, was handed to a Chinese firm in 2017 as Sri Lanka struggled to repay its debts.

A spokesperson for Cameron reiterated the foreign secretary had “not engaged in any way with China or any Chinese company” in relation to his work with the project.

“David Cameron spoke at two events in the UAE organised via Washington Speakers Bureau (WSB), in support of Port City Colombo, Sri Lanka,” the spokesperson said.

“The contracting party for the events was KPMG Sri Lanka, and Mr Cameron’s engagement followed a meeting he had with Sri Lanka’s President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, earlier in the year.

“Mr Cameron has not engaged in any way with China or any Chinese company about these speaking events. The Port City project is fully supported by the Sri Lankan government.”

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