Sri Lanka's rise in strategic importance in Chinese geopolitical calculus

Major power interest in Sri Lanka despite the COVID-19 pandemic was noticed  earlier  this year when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice G Wells, and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi,  all visited Sri Lanka in January to hold bilateral talks with the Sri Lankan government, writes Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Straddling the crossroads of major shipping lanes, Sri Lanka with its two major ports of Colombo and Hambantota has always been of strategic importance. Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT), which is a joint venture operated by China and Sri Lanka at the Colombo South Terminal in Colombo Port, alone handled 2.9 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) or 40 percent of volumes at Colombo Port during 2019. But after the Wuhan virus, and China adopting increased aggressive posture, Sri Lanka’s strategic value has shot up in the post-virus geopolitical calculus of the big powers.  

China has consolidated its position in the South China Sea and its integrated strategy of economic development and military expansion has enabled Beijing’s rapid expansion in the Indian Ocean. Given its geographical location, Sri Lanka is particularly important for Chinese aims in the region. Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa may say that no foreign bases will be permitted in its territory, but China debt-trapped Sri Lanka in the Hambantota port project and assumed control of the port for 99 years.  Will this be the future pattern in the Indian Ocean region of China enhancing its footprint of ‘strategic support bases’ through the backdoor? 

Chinese nuclear submarines and warships do not dock at berths of the Sri Lanka Port Authority in Colombo, which is mandated to accommodate military vessels. Instead, they berth at the Colombo South Container Terminal (CSCT), violating current protocols. CSCT is a deep-water facility built, controlled and run by Beijing – a Chinese enclave within the Sri Lankan harbor.

As part of its growing strategic lift capabilities, in 2019, China launched  the Type 075 vessel – its  largest amphibious ship that carries 900 marines, landing crafts, amphibious assault vehicles, 30 helicopters and can also house fighter jets. Two more Type 075 under construction would be ready by end of 2020.

In March 2017, China announced increasing its marine corps from 20,000 to 100,000 for overseas tasks (mentioning Djibouti and Gwadar, Pakistan), plus increasing PLAN’s strength by 15 percent from the existing 2,35,000. Chinese overseas projects usually have covert PLA presence, as would Hambantota and CSCT.

There is speculation that China’s Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) will be operational in the Indian Ocean within five years. Djibouti and Pakistan would be MEU bases for sure but mobile MEUs patrolling the seas could berth at Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar on the pretext of rest, recoup and repairs.  

Major power interest in Sri Lanka despite the COVID-19 pandemic was noticed  earlier  this year when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice G Wells, and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi,  all visited Sri Lanka in January to hold bilateral talks with the Sri Lankan government. Lavrov pushed for increasing annual bilateral trade from $400 million to $700 million, promising special attention to this in the upcoming Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, and Technical Cooperation.

Apropos the USA, Wells presented  alternatives to offers by China, dubbed the Hambantota deal "unfair", expressed concern over the lack of transparency in Chinese projects and drew attention to the lack of feasibility studies in Chinese projects like Mattala Airport and Lotus Tower. 

Wang Yi said Sri Lanka may have less landmass but will soon be economically strong and China will help Sri Lanka achieve that goal. He added: “We (read China) will not allow any outside influence to interfere with matters that are essentially internal concerns of Sri Lanka”. The three visitors also aired perceptions of their respective countries on the situation in the Gulf.

In January, President Rajapaksa said he wanted to review the Hambantota deal with China but this was more a political statement. Sri Lanka permitted itself to be debt-trapped in Hambantota during the regime of his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is the Prime Minister today. There is no way Beijing will dilute the lease given the fact that China doesn’t seal a deal of this nature with assured strategic gains without buying the host country’s hierarchy. Sri Lanka being crucial to the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) China is intensifying investments in construction, infrastructure, and plantations. Presently, Sri Lanka’s debt to China is not large (about six percent of GDP) but this can increase with more Chinese investments and loans to ease Sri Lanka’s external debt which stood at USD  $55.9 billion in end 2019.

China’s exports to Sri Lanka reached an all-time high of $ 580, 529 in February 2020 (https://tradingeconomics.com/china/exports-to-sri-lanka). China has supplied a variety of defence equipment to Sri Lanka and since 2016 is offering military aid to help Sri Lanka buy Chinese military equipment. China gifted a 2,300-ton Type 053 frigate to Sri Lanka in 2019 and is in the process of delivering nine diesel trains to the island nation. China is also helping Sri Lanka set up an Aircraft Maintenance Centre.

India’s relations with Sri Lanka remain cordial and India is the second-highest investor in Sri Lanka. India gifted three OPVs to Sri Lanka in the period 2006-2018.  In May 2019, Sri Lanka signed a deal with India and Japan to develop the deep-sea East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port. Sri Lanka retains 51 percent stakes with India and Japan 49 percent each, enabling the Sri Lanka Port Authority to retain 100 percent ownership.  

The US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee on Sri Lanka has stated that that “Sri Lanka's strategic importance to the United States, China and India is viewed by some as a key piece in a larger geopolitical dynamic”. This is more than true but it must be borne in mind that Sri Lanka is the diamond in China’s 'string of pearls' surrounding India and Beijing is intent on dominating the India Ocean. It perceives a lack of collective military opposition based on its experience in South and East China Seas. It is emboldened and will not hesitate to test red lines despite the talk of Quad and Quad Plus.

Enlarged PLAN presence around Sri Lanka can hinder the switching of Indian naval forces between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.  Significantly Alice Wells visiting Sri Lanka in January did not raise the issue of human rights against the LTTE, but measures beyond offering alternatives to Chinese offers are required to prevent Sri Lanka from being swallowed by the dragon.

China’s politico-economic strategy mesmerizes the victim slowly, as witnessed in Beijing  reviving the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor which will be China’s second strategic highway to the Indian Ocean after the CPEC in Pakistan. 

In a related development, the island of Feydhoofinolhu near Male in the Maldives, leased in 2017 to China for 50 years, now sees a dramatic facelift through land reclamation, expanding not just in size but also the One Belt, One Road footprint in the Indian Ocean. India must be alert to these developments in its backyard.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal)

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