Locals waiting to enter the occupied Hambantota port by China in Sri Lanka
The passing of this Bill should not come as a surprise since the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahendra – the Prime Minister (and former President) and Gotabaya the President are known to be soft on China. It was during the time Mahendra was the President and Gotobaya the Defence Minister that China was able to make major inroads into Sri Lanka as part of its Belt and Road Initiative and gained a firm foothold in that country. It developed the Hambantota port which it has now leased for 99 years for USD 1.2 Bn as a debt swap for the Chinese loan though there are voices in Sri Lanka which dispute this stating that the lease was done to generate money to service its external debt and not the repayment of the Chinese loan. However, whatever be the specifics, the fact remains that Hambantota which is located on the southern coast of Sri Lanka will have substantial Chinese control. In fact, Sri Lanka has even moved its naval base at Hambantota to Galle.
Control of Hambantota port gives China a vantage position in the eastern Indian Ocean to address its Malacca Dilemma. The passing of the Bill which will soon become an Act will give China an additional 269 hectares of reclaimed seafront off the Colombo port in the country’s south-west with little oversight from the Sri Lankan government and will enable it to have full control to the extent that it could even regulate the movement of people and since any currency will be allowed to be used, the Yuan will be a certainty.
Sri Lanka occupies a strategic position in the Indo-Pacific. Its southern tip straddles some of the most critical sea lanes in the world over which most of the trade and almost all of the energy transits to nations east of the Malacca Straits viz China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and many others. It is therefore critical for all these nations to ensure that the safety and security of these sea lanes and the ships transiting through them is not jeopardised. China is heavily dependent on oil from the Arabian Gulf – 80% of its oil imports are sourced from there and transit through the Straits of Malacca, one of the most strategically important geopolitical chokepoints in the world. Prior to entering the Malacca Straits , this traffic passes through the Traffic Separation Scheme off Dondra Head which is located only about 10 nautical miles south of Hambantota. Control of this port is therefore a strategic asset for China in mitigating the vulnerability of its trade and energy in what is referred to as its Malacca Dilemma. A strong PLA Navy presence in this region will not only secure its own trade but will also enable it to disrupt, delay or destroy the trade and energy flows to its adversaries. China’s Malacca Dilemma is its apprehension that India will be able to block the western approaches to the Malacca Straits since they are in close proximity to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and USA and its allies in the Pacific being able to block the eastern approaches thus crippling the movement of its merchant as well as naval shipping. The Malacca Straits at its narrowest is less than two miles wide and an effective chokepoint.
From an Indian perspective this is not good news. India had been very uncomfortable with the previous Rajapaksa regime and its proximity to China. Subsequently when the Sirisena/Wickremasinghe government came to power, there seemed to be a pro-India tilt though it did not greatly impact the Chinese investments despite their coming under scrutiny. In fact, the Hambantota port was leased to the Chinese during this period. However, this government soon gave way to the Rajapaksa brothers who returned stronger than ever. Initially they made all the right noises – India was the first country they both visited after assuming office – Gotobaya as President in November 2019 and Mahendra as Prime Minister in February 2020 and reiterated the warmth of the bilateral relationship. The President’s visit had been preceded by Dr Jaishankar, the Indian External Affairs Minister visiting Sri Lanka a week earlier. On another occasion Mahendra Rajapaksa also commented that the extent of Chinese investment was perhaps a mistake. These moves allayed India’s apprehensions to some extent. In December 2020, Ajit Doval, the Indian National Security Adviser travelled to Colombo to participate in a NSA level trilateral meeting on maritime security with his Sri Lankan and Maldivian counterparts. Held after a gap of four years, it was decided to institutionalise this as a biennial event, and earlier this year a permanent secretariat was established at the Sri Lankan Naval HQ in Colombo to function 24/7 on issues related primarily to maritime security. Sri Lanka has also been a beneficiary of India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth For All in the Region) Doctrine promoting inclusive and cooperative capacity building to secure the larger Indian Ocean region from the traditional, non-traditional, transnational and sub-conventional security challenges that abound in this region. There are plans to integrate Sri Lanka into the Coastal Security Network and the Sri Lankan Navy also operates Indian-built Offshore Patrol Vessels.
A permanent PLA(N) presence in the Indian Ocean is a source of concern to the Indian Navy which has been flagged by successive Chiefs of the Indian Navy. Leasing Hambantota and the Port City project makes it almost certain that the PLA will soon have a presence in these waters which may include the basing of ships and submarines as well as a staging post for sustaining a longer deployment in the Indian Ocean. A PLA(N) presence in the eastern Indian Ocean will certainly inhibit the Indian Navy’s deployment options and will neutralise the geographical advantage it enjoys in these waters. China has been expanding its footprint in the Indian Ocean and has been regularly deploying research vessels (spy ships) to gather intelligence and hydrographic data. Availability of a base would enable a more sustained presence.
Perhaps of even greater concern to the Indian Navy is that Hambantota and Colombo are less than 300 miles from the Indian mainland, about 400 miles from Chennai and are less than an hour’s flying time away. So India will have to adapt to the presence of its principal adversary practically in its backyard and shape its preparedness and response accordingly.
It is indeed surprising that India, despite its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and its SAGAR initiative is unable to anticipate events in its strategic neighbourhood. It misread Maldives a few years ago when a coup unseated President Nasheed and allowed the Chinese to make deep inroads into that country despite the Indian High Commission being just a stone’s throw away from the President’s residence in a city that is smaller than a Tier-2 Indian city and led to the cancellation of the strategic international airport project with an Indian firm. Bangladesh, despite a friendly Sheikh Hasina at the helm and a healthy bilateral relationship procured two Ming class submarines and a frigate from China which gives that country a military-diplomatic leverage that is detrimental to India’s interests in the Bay of Bengal. As recently as last week the Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Bangladesh warning it not to encourage extra regional powers into the region (read ‘Quad’). However, Bangladesh cannot be blamed for turning to the Chinese to enhance its naval force levels since India’s dysfunctional defence-industrial policies and approach to defence manufacture coupled with political myopia has left it bereft of indigenous submarine technology and therefore the ability to offer a submarine to its neighbour. India’s foreign policy mandarins decided to counter this by handing over one of its Kilo class submarines to Myanmar to deepen the bilateral engagement with that country and enhance the security framework in the Bay of Bengal. Prior to the handing over of this valuable platform which further depleted India’s deficient submarine force, the Indian Army Chief accompanied by the Foreign Secretary had visited that country. Less than six months later, the military junta in that country staged a coup overthrowing the democratic process and leaving India surprised and in a bind. While the world criticised the move in no uncertain terms and discussed punitive action, India had to calibrate its response very carefully due to its own security imperatives in the region. Hence India’s maritime diplomacy in our strategic neighbourhood has been less than impressive in the recent past so the turn of events in Sri Lanka should not come as a surprise.
China has made no secret of its intention to dominate the Indian Ocean through its fast expanding navy and strategic initiatives like the BRI. A permanent PLA(N) presence in close proximity to India would undermine India’s own position in the Indian Ocean and its ability to shape the geopolitical outcomes in the region. It must therefore pay far more attention to securing its maritime frontiers and its regional interests with a synergistic foreign and security policy with due prioritisation and committed funding for development of adequate naval force levels, addressing capability deficits and intensifying its capacity building initiatives in the region.