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Strengthening grip
China’s strategic relations with Sri Lanka

China has further strengthened its strategic grip over Sri Lanka, as the President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his May end visit to Beijing, his sixth after the elimination of LTTE leaders and hardcore cadres, sealed fresh agreements to deepen Chinese involvement not only in training Sri Lankan defence forces and other areas of defence cooperation but also expanded its arms in the port sector from Hambantota to Colombo.

Hambantota, which has already become a geopolitically controversial port development project by the Chinese, will allow the Chinese naval ships the facilities to refuel and rest while the Colombo port will be another ‘Pearl in the String’ which the Chinese have carefully woven around India but claims ignorance of such a strategy.

The latest Sri Lanka-China joint statement, declaring to raise the defence relations to the level of full strategic partnership will add more fuel to the strategic fire likely to engulf the Indian Ocean in the near future. This will increase the level of suspicion not only in Indian strategic circles but also the international powers like US and Japan would not like China to get a foothold in the region.

The Blue Book

The latest Chinese Blue Book, released on 9th June, 2013, delineating China’s future role and strategy in the Indian Ocean has raised enough eyebrows and the Sri Lanka-China strategic partnerships agreement is only a manifestation of the Indian Ocean strategy under implementation since last decade.

The Blue Book explains the background of the emerging China-Sri Lanka defence relations and its policy of engagement with the Indian Ocean littoral States.

After the Sri Lankan President’s visit to Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told the press, “Both sides agreed to further deepen defence cooperation and maintain exchanges between the two defence ministries and would continue cooperating in defence technology, personal training and other fields.”

China wins the hearts and minds of the smaller countries by offering them easy loans, grants and technical assistance for various infrastructure developments. With Sri Lanka, China has been playing this game since last one decade and bagged the very controversial Hambantota project only in 2007 and handed over the port to the Sri Lankan government within five years.

The Chinese have now moved on with US$ 2.2 billion loan for developing the Colombo port northern express highway which will link Kandy in Central Sri Lanka to Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka.

Undoubtedly China has taken advantage of growing rift between India and Sri Lanka on the Tamil issue.

Though India has been contributing to the development of Sri Lanka in multifarious ways with over billion dollar assistance, India could not have extended open and lethal military support to Sri Lanka because of sensitivities in Tamil Nadu, as Sri Lanka continues with repressive and discriminatory measures in the Tamil dominated areas.

India’s relations with Sri Lanka have become victim to the Sri Lankan Tamil policy and pressures due to domestic politics in Tamil Nadu. At a time when Sri Lanka is facing the wrath of the UN Human Rights body and India feels morally bound with Tamil cause, Sri Lanka could not have found a better ally than China, which itself needs friends to extend moral support on international criticism relating to its Human Rights record.

No wonder that the Joint Statement vowed to jointly crack down on the “three forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism, as well as transnational crimes and drug trafficking” And, “They will respect each other’s choice of development path and strengthen exchanges of experience in state governance.”

In fact Rajapaksa has increasingly relied on China to ward off international pressures to probe human rights violations in the aftermath of the brutal killings of the LTTE leaders and their family members. In fact China has extended valuable support to Sri Lanka in its war against the Tamil Tigers by supplying required weapons and platforms besides diplomatic and moral support to the Sri Lankan government.

Though China has lured small island countries like Seychelles and Madagascar to extend rest and recreation facilities to Chinese naval ships by providing financial grants, Chinese new Indian Ocean strategy now seems to be resting primarily on Sri Lanka and Pakistan, where the Chinese have taken up the port developments projects as strategic objective.

Geo-strategic importance

Sri Lanka lies astride the major sea lanes of communications from Europe to East Asia and is also a major oil supply route from the Gulf region to China, Japan and other pacific nations. Thus militarily, this route assumes importance for the big economies and the same route can also be used for movements of naval ships from the Pacific Ocean to Indian Ocean and the Gulf.

Hence commenting on Hambantota the Japanese daily Japan Times once wrote, “China’s involvement in Sri Lanka has inevitably raised speculation that Hambantota is the latest jewel in a so-called “String of Pearls” that will pave the way for China’s rapidly expanding navy to operate routinely in the Indian Ocean from secure bases in the region.”

The US strategic community has also now realized the follies of targeting Sri Lanka in the name of Human Rights violations forcing the Committee on the Foreign Relations of the US Senate to reevaluate its approach towards Sri Lanka.

According to the new approach, the US believes that this strategic drift will have consequences for US interests in the region. Along with its legitimate humanitarian and political concerns, US policymakers have tended to underestimate Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic importance for American interests. Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. The United States cannot afford to ‘‘lose’’ Sri Lanka.

The Chinese government naturally shows more pragmatic attitude towards countries with history of human rights violations and dictatorial regimes as the communist leaders finds themselves in the comfortable company and showcase a solid partner with mutual admiration for each others policies as demonstrated in the latest Sri Lanka-China joint statement.

In fact China finds those countries easy to target to further its strategic interests. And the internal strife in Sri Lanka provided a golden opportunity to China to develop a strategic partnership with the leaders of a country under heavy international pressure and criticism to give fair treatment to the Tamil people.

Hence the Blue Book by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences calls for China to be more proactive in securing its economic interests in the region.

“If [China] cannot have a positive impact on these regional powers and the Indian Ocean littoral states, the future situation will be even more severe, and will affect China’s development and peace negatively.”

The Chinese strategists seem to be following the Blue Book even if it was not in public domain earlier. Now the Blue Book says “With changes in the relations among countries in the Indian Ocean Region and in the international situation, China’s diplomacy should also change. A clear development strategy in the Indian Ocean Region for China is not only a sign of China’s self-confidence, and also a clear demonstration of China’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean Region.”

The speed and depth with which China has been pursuing its relations with Sri Lanka speaks volumes of Chinese long term strategic planning for the Indian Ocean.