A square mile of new land spreads out from the shores of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Crews are 80% through reclaiming approximately 65 million cubic meters of sand from the Indian Ocean floor. 

The land will form the foundation of Port City Colombo a massive new district of high-rise office towers, luxury apartments, tree-lined canals and beachfront villas.

Adjacent to the city's central business district and a recently upgraded port, the $1.4 billion project is touted by its developers as "a world class city for South Asia." For South Asia, perhaps. But not by South Asia. The Port City development, like a number of other infrastructure and building projects throughout Colombo, is being primarily financed, designed, engineered and even constructed by China.

A spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, described Chinese-backed property developments in Colombo as "entirely commercial cooperation projects" during a press conference in April. "I believe the issues arising in the process of commercial cooperation should be resolved through friendly negotiation by those relevant business partners," she added.

The Chinese firms behind the Port City Colombo project, the state-owned China Communications & Construction Company and its subsidiary, the China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd, did not respond to requests for comment.

From 'aid' to profit

Charlie Xue, City University of Hong Kong architecture professor, has studied China's overseas building efforts from the past five decades. He classifies most of them as "architectural aid" -- projects gifted to other countries by the Chinese government or state-owned enterprises in order to "foster trade, seek economic interest and expand cultural influence."

Shen Dingli, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, described the motivations behind China's overseas construction drive as twofold.

"The first (reason) is to offer a facility, as the host countries need it," he said in an email interview. "The second is to build it as a symbol of friendship, which extends China's friendly presence and soft power.

The Chinese government distances itself from accusations that it uses building projects to secure greater influence in the developing world. Questioned about the country's role in two new African construction projects -- new headquarters for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and parliamentary buildings in Zimbabwe -- Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Lu Kang, described China's motives as benevolent in nature.

"As is known to us all, poor infrastructure is one of the main bottlenecks choking Africa's development and progress," he told CNN at a press conference in March. 

"The infrastructure projects constructed with the assistance of China are welcomed by African countries and their people."