The Dragon’s Newest Pearl

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Fresh Ties Yang Jiechi, Chinese Foreign Minister with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo
Fresh Ties Yang Jiechi, Chinese Foreign Minister with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo
Photo: AP

SRI LANKA is the object of a power struggle between Indian, Chinese, and Western interests in the region. These global and regional powers are jostling to expand their influence in the island nation, where a decades-long civil war has exacted a grim toll on political and economic stability, a situation that every power wants to capitalise on. Sri Lanka’s geographical location makes it an ideal base to monitor the busy shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, the vital route through which oil from the Middle East is transported to Asian countries. About 80 percent of China’s oil passes through this region.

For China, a foothold in Sri Lanka will bring it within breathing distance of India’s southern coast, where several sensitive installations including atomic power plants are located. Lanka-China relations have grown rapidly in recent years. China is Lanka’s major supplier of arms and its largest donor. It is also developing a port in Hambantota, in southern Sri Lanka.

Chinese bases in Lanka would be within breathing distance of India’s atomic plants

“Though Hambantota is being developed as a merchant shipping port, it can be converted into a naval base by adding a few facilities,” says Col (retd) R Hariharan, a strategic expert and Sri Lanka specialist. Experts view the Chinese role in Hambantota as part of its strategy to surround India with naval bases. “It is part of their ‘string of pearls’ strategy,” says Major General (retd) Ashok Kumar Mehta, a defence expert. China has been pumping in money to develop ports in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan to consolidate its strategic interests.

A US report on the Chinese ‘string of pearls’ states, “China is building strategic relationships along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea in ways that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China’s energy interests, but also to serve broad security objectives.” India’s response to the Sri Lanka-China military alliance has been feeble so far.

Illustration: Anand Naorem

However, it seems that India may now start tightening the screws on Sri Lanka. Home Minister P Chidambaram recently accused China of using the Tamil crisis to expand its influence in Sri Lanka. “China is fishing in troubled waters,” he told The Hindustan Times, adding, “It is acting with a clear agenda. Our policies take account of Chinese calculations.”

Sri Lanka has played China and India against each other to receive aid from both to conduct its war against the Tamil rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In August 2006, Sri Lanka launched a military campaign to liberate the areas under LTTE control. Undeterred by accusations of human rights violations, it pressed on with the war, killing thousands of civilians in the process but cornered the LTTE in a 4 sq km area near Mullaithivu on the north-eastern coast.

Sri Lanka has played China and India against each other to receive aid from both

“China had no problem with how Colombo waged its war. It was concerned about its own geo-political interests,” says China expert Sujit Dutta, at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.

But the West found Colombo’s actions unacceptable. Germany stopped the multimillion-dollar aid it had pledged for the rehabilitation of tsunami-affected people in 2006. It was unhappy that the aid was not reaching the victims, especially in LTTE-controlled areas. The US had stopped the supply of military equipment since early 2008, stating that the embargo would be lifted only if Colombo improved its human rights record. It wanted the prosecution of military personnel “credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights” and urged Colombo to agree to set up an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka and to allow it to conduct “unfettered monitoring throughout the country.” Sri Lanka, however, ignored all such appeals and, thanks to China, did not the feel the pinch of US sanctions.

As strategic expert Brahma Chellaney states in a recent article in Japan Times, “No sooner had the United States ended direct military aid to Sri Lanka last year over its deteriorating human rights record than China blithely stepped in to fill the breach…Beijing began selling larger quantities of arms (to Sri Lanka), and dramatically boosted its annual aid to almost $1 billion, to emerge as Sri Lanka’s largest donor. Chinese Jian-7 fighter jets, antiaircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other supplied weapons have played a central role in Sri Lankan military successes against the LTTE.”

Whiile China used its clout in the UN Security Council (UNSC) to block a debate on the worsening human rights situation in Sri Lanka in March, the US, UK, and France are now planning to seek a fresh debate on the issue in the UNSC. The Tamil diaspora in these nations has been exerting tremendous pressure on their governments to stop the war and save the lives of civilians trapped in the war zone.

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CHINESE FOOTSTEPS

1 MYANMAR
Surveillance and intelligence gathering post at the Grand Cocos island in the Andamans

2 BANGLADESH
Construction of a naval base in Chittagong port

3 SRI LANKA
Construction of a port in Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka

4 PAKISTAN
Construction of a port and naval base in Gwadar, in western Pakistan

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On April 24, the US issued a veiled warning: It hinted that if Colombo continued to ignore the safety of civilians, Sri Lanka’s unity might be at stake. “It would compound the current tragedy if the military end of the conflict only breeds further enmity and ends hopes for reconciliation and a unified Sri Lanka in the future,” the White House stated.

WASHINGTON’S sudden upping of the ante against Colombo, read with Chidambaram’s statement on the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka may suggest a broader coalition at work. Both the US and India have reasons to worry about strengthening China-Lanka relations. As strategic expert and former RAW officer B Raman wrote last June, “The US Navy is eyeing Colombo as a fall-back option in case the continuing use of Karachi port for logistics and other purposes becomes difficult because of anti-US sentiment in Pakistan.”

Sri Lankan Tamil MP, N Srikantha predicts that India would have to contend with the Chinese factor in Sri Lanka as long as the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict remains unresolved. “It is in India’s security interests to find a early solution to this bitter conflict,” he says. Undoubtedly, Sri Lanka will be a priority issue for the next government in New Delhi.

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