China’s strategic presence in Sri Lanka
by R Hariharan on 03 Sep 2013 3 Comments

The growing presence of the Chinese in Sri Lanka, when India-Sri Lanka relations are under stress, has disturbing strategic connotations for national security.  Chinese actions are closely related to the domestic and external policy dispensations of the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jingping as well as China’s desire to takeover South Asia’s under-exploited markets dominated by India so far.


The 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress held in November 2012 had envisaged the policy parameters of the new leadership. It said: “Peaceful development is China’s basic state policy, and win-win cooperation is a banner for China’s friendly relations with other countries. To realise ‘China dream’, we must have a peaceful international environment. At the same time, the country will resolutely safeguard its national sovereignty, security, and core interests. The two policies are two pillars of Chinese diplomacy, and do not conflict with each other.”


Echoing the Party guidance, President Xi Jinping speaking at CCP politburo session in January 2013 said that China would remain on a path of peaceful development, yet it would “never give up” legitimate rights or sacrifice ‘core interests’. He cautioned that “no country should presume that we will engage in trade involving our ‘core interests’ or that we will swallow the ‘bitter fruit’ of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests.” China’s loud assertion of its claims in South China Sea bears this out.


In the South Asian context, China’s policy prescription would translate as: vigorously defending the integrity of its borders, pursuing its territorial claims, developing strategic communication lines to the border areas and not losing sight of its economic interests. The PLA’s repeated intrusions along India’s border in Ladakh and enlarging presence in Sri Lanka validate this.


India’s emergence as a rapidly growing economic and military power dominating the Indian Ocean add to China’s strategic concerns. China’s unresolved border dispute and unfulfilled territorial claims with India have continued to simmer. China nurtures deep suspicions about India’s role in sustaining the activities of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama as well as India’s growing strategic relationship with the US and Japan.


Nonetheless, China appears to have realized the need to avoid head-on confrontation with India and build a win-win relationship taking advantage of each other’s economic strengths. Thanks to India’s reciprocation of these sentiments, bilateral relations are recovering slowly from the huge setback suffered after China’s war with India in 1962.


However, the relationship building process continues to be hostage to a number of unresolved issues of 1962 vintage. New areas of Indian concern like the construction of dams in the upper reaches of Brahmaputra River in Tibet and the presence of PLA construction troops in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have emerged.


Considering this environment, building a strong relationship with Sri Lanka was a logical step for China as it confers a strategic advantage in protecting its interests in the Indian Ocean region while providing a strategic pivot in the underbelly of India.


China’s strategic forays in Sri Lanka are likely to impact the US and Western powers also, as these give China a strategic foothold midway on the Indian Ocean’s international sea lanes of communication. President Rajapaksa has been aggrieved about the way Sri Lanka was treated by the US and the West over allegations of human rights violations during the Eelam War IV and its aftermath. In the last stages of the War in April 2009, the US offer to send marines to evacuate the LTTE leadership trapped in a narrow strip of land caused a lot of suspicion about US intentions in Sri Lanka. This was further aggravated after the US sponsored a successful resolution seeking Sri Lanka’s accountability for human rights aberrations in the UN Human Rights Council meeting in March 2012. 


China’s forays in Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka has the potential to make a huge impact in India’s strategic security thanks to its geographic proximity to India. However, its smaller size makes it more vulnerable to India’s strategic moves. Both nations have recognised the relevance of each other to their national well being and security architecture. This is vouched by the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) signed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka President JR Jayewardene on July 29, 1987. In the letters exchanged between the two leaders at the time of signing of the ISLA (and attached to the Agreement) JR Jayewardene had assured that Sri Lanka would not make available Trincomalee and other ports for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interest. This is relevant in the context of the emerging role of China in Sri Lanka.


India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka after the signing of the ISLA and its pull out due to political changes in both countries soured relations for a decade. But later, the two nations came together to build a converging, multifaceted relationship. This relationship developed friction after the Sri Lanka army routed the LTTE and ended its two-decade old separatist insurgency in the Eelam War IV (2006-2009). Some of the reasons for this are:


-        Sri Lanka’s unhappiness with India’s failure to meet its wish list for arms in full during the Eelam War, due to domestic political pressure in India. However, India extended invaluable diplomatic, intelligence and other non-military support to Sri Lanka.

-        Sri Lanka’s failure to dispassionately investigate allegations of war crimes committed against Tamils during the War triggered sympathies for Tamils in Tamil Nadu helping revival of support for Sri Lankan Tamil separatism spearheaded by LTTE’s overseas elements. This has increased Sri Lanka’s suspicion about India’s agenda in Sri Lanka.

-        India’s vote for the US sponsored resolution seeking Sri Lanka’s accountability for its human rights aberrations passed in the UN Human Rights Council meeting in March 2012 created a lot of bitterness in Sri Lanka. 

-        President Rajapaksa’s failure to keep his repeated promises to implement the 13th Amendment created as a result of the ISLA to fully empower provincial councils. This caused a furore in India’s domestic politics and embarrassed India’s ruling coalition, and could affect their political fortunes in the next parliamentary election.  


China has used these fissures in the bilateral relationship to systematically undermine India’s overwhelming political, strategic and commercial influence in Sri Lanka. Despite the two South Asian neighbours’ very close relations, China has made considerable headway by exploiting President Rajapaksa’s domineering leadership style and sense of triumphalism after the war. Sri Lanka’s economic vulnerability in the post-war reconstruction period has made Sri Lanka to return Chinese overtures.


China established itself as a friend of Sri Lanka by meeting Sri Lanka’s wartime requirements after it was “let down by friends.” So far China is reported to have provided over $1.8 billion worth of arms to Sri Lanka. China’s Poly Technologies is estimated to have supplied $37.6 million worth ammunition and ordnance for the army and navy in 2007. China National Electronics Import Export Corp provided Sri Lanka a JY 11 3D radar at a cost of $5 million. China also provided diplomatic support for Sri Lanka at the UN. 


Chinese assistance has been widely appreciated by President Rajapaksa and most Sri Lankans, who were disappointed with India. This has provided a take off point for China in Sri Lanka’s internal and external spheres.


Since the end of the Eelam war in 2009 there had been a steady increase in exchanges at governmental, military, and political levels between the two countries. President Rajapaksa has visited China six times since came to power in 2005. During President Rajapaksa’s August 2011 visit to Beijing, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed the country’s readiness to help with Sri Lanka’s economic development, promote communication between the two countries with regard to infrastructure construction, enlarge two-way trade and investment, and strengthen cultural and personnel exchanges.


In his last visit in May 2013, President Rajapaksa met with President Xi Jinping during which China and Sri Lanka agreed to upgrade their relations to a strategic cooperative partnership. A Xinhua report on the visit said “According to the new consensus, the two countries will maintain high-level exchanges, enhance political communication, and support each other’s efforts in safeguarding national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” indicating Beijing’s strong desire to build its strategic relations with Sri Lanka.


China’s Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie visit’s – the first ever for a Chinese defence minister to Sri Lanka - in August 2012 was kept low profile. However, the Chinese press release on the visit was a little more explicit. It quoted General Liang as saying that political trust between the two countries had deepened with the rapid expansion of exchanges and cooperation in various fields. He expressed the hope that the two sides would continue to work hard to maintain the close and friendly relations and strengthen exchanges and cooperation in the field of non-traditional security and improve the ability to respond to crisis together, so as contribute to regional peace, stability and development.


The Minister’s references to ‘non-traditional security’ and ‘responding to crisis together’ were related to international counter-terrorism cooperation that China had been promoting for some time. This was mooted in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and joint exercises have been carried out. Probably China would like to promote similar joint efforts with South Asian nations. This was evidenced by the Chinese military participation in the Sri Lanka joint services exercise “Cormorant III” from September 10 to 25, 2012 in Eastern Province aimed at honing joint operational skills with the air force and navy in counter terrorism operations.


Besides the Chinese troops, military personnel from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Maldives participated in the exercise. As revival of Tamil separatist insurgency in Sri Lanka appears remote, Sri Lankan armed forces training for such security situations would give them the option of working with Chinese military assistance in such an eventuality. China’s active military cooperation in Sri Lanka, literally in India’s ‘backyard’, would complicate India’s security situation.


During the Chinese defence minister’s visit a grant of $100 million for construction of army camps in North and East illustrates the Chinese attitude to the aftermath of the Eelam War in sharp contrast to India’s $ 105 million relief and rehabilitation package offered to war affected people.


A month after his visit to Colombo, the chairman of China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee Wu Bangguo, known as the Top Legislator, the second highest ranking member in China’s party hierarchy, made a five-day visit to Sri Lanka. During his meeting with President Rajapaksa, Wu proposed expanded cooperation between the two countries in infrastructure construction and as well as collaboration in new sectors such as marine scientific research, climate change, disaster prevention and relief, tourism etc. Many of the projects offered have been quickly pushed by the Chinese, showing the priority they attach to Sri Lanka.


Major General Qian Lihua, Chief of Foreign Affairs Office, Ministry of National Defence, visited Sri Lanka in August 2012. He has a distinguished record as Member of the Central Military Commission of PRC and Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army in November 2002. During his exchange of views with the Sri Lanka army commander, he assured PLA’s fullest cooperation to the Sri Lanka army in several areas of its professional training, exercises and further promotion of military assistance on request. He also promised Sri Lanka more openings in the future for training of Sri Lankan officers at PLA’s training facilities.


China has emerged as the largest development aid giver to Sri Lanka in 2012 with a commitment of $1.05 billion, while India providing over $700 million was in the second place, according to the Sri Lanka Ministry of Finance and Planning’s External Resources Department’s 2012 report. The total assistance extended by China during the period between 1971 and 2012 was $5.05 billion of which $4.76 billion, around 94 per cent, was extended during the last 8-year period from 2005 to 2012, the report said. India extended a total assistance of $1.45 billion between 2007 and 2012. Out of this amount $1.12 billion was loan assistance and 326 million was grant assistance.


Chinese companies are involved in a number of infrastructure, communication and port development projects of strategic importance funded by Chinese loans. These include the Hambantota port project Phase-I completed at a cost of $360 million (85% financed by the Chinese) and Phase II construction underway; the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport near Hambantota built at an estimated cost of $ 210 million completed in March 2013; the just completed Colombo South Container terminal with 2.4 million TEU capacity built by a joint venture company in which China Merchant Holdings Co holds 85% share. This makes Colombo Port complex one of the biggest in the world.


At present over 25,000 Chinese workers are in various projects in Sri Lanka and there is a fear that many of them may stay on. Of greater sensitivity are Chinese deals to build telecommunication and information technology networks in Sri Lanka. These would increase China’s options to eavesdrop on Indian and Indian Ocean communication and to carry out electronic warfare.


The projects include an agreement worth $50 million between telecom provider China ZTE Corporation with Mobitel of Sri Lanka to establish 700 LTE base stations and transmission equipment for stage VII mobile network expansion project. Launch of the country’s first communications satellite with the help of China Great Wall Industry Corp, which has signed $320 million worth satellite deals with a Sri Lankan private company. Besides this, the two companies have struck a deal for the use of China’s Beidou (GPS) navigation system by Sri Lanka. According to the Chinese company spokesman, a telecommunications centre in Kandy will become operational within this year and provide Beidou service.




China’s strategic clout in Sri Lanka is increasing every day. Many Chinese assisted projects like Colombo container terminal, Hambantota port and Mattala airport, satellite and telecom endeavours provide legitimate access to Chinese specialist personnel. Under President Xi Jinping efforts are on to build closer strategic linkages with Sri Lanka. These will have serious connotations for India’s national security and maritime security. China’s soft power is increasingly visible in all aspects of Sri Lanka society - political, diplomatic, and development fronts as well. Chinese entry into real estate and some manufacturing projects are also coming through. Chinese language teaching and cultural spread are also on the cards as a Confucius Centre is scheduled to open in Colombo.


Though Chinese soft power expansion is also happening in India (except for Confucius Centre), the political perceptions of President Rajapaksa are likely to favour China as a counterpoise to reduce his dependence upon India. The strategic dimension Chinese have added now could make rapid headway unless the drift in India-Sri Lanka relations is halted. The strong anti-Sri Lankan flavour of Tamil Nadu politics has caused serious damage to India’s carefully nurtured relationship with Colombo. Unless this is managed better, political developments in India may well assist rather than hinder China in establishing itself firmly in Sri Lanka.


Col Hariharan is a distinguished strategic analyst

Courtesy: Centre for Land Warfare Studies Journal ‘Scholar Warrior’, August 2013  

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