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Growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 08, 2009

    Sri Lanka has achieved military victory over Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This fight against the LTTE has had different connotations for both India and China. In the current scenario India had to be neutral as this definitely would have had repercussions on Indian soil. The involvement of Tamil’s had put to test the Indian internal security. And thus the Indian government had to decide not to supply arms and ammunitions to the Sri Lankan government in its fight against the LTTE. But this neutral stand by the Indian government provided China with an opportunity to make headway into Sri Lanka and there is an urgent need for India to take note of this growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka and in the Indian Ocean.

    In the past few years a number of high level meetings took place between China and Sri Lanka. Today China is heavily investing in the Sri Lankan domestic economy and thus driving the Sri Lankan economy. The Chinese are investing heavily in the field of infrastructure like the Norochcholai power plant which is set to be completed by the year 2010 and would be able to meet the Sri Lanka’s power requirements to a very large extent. Apart from this China is also extensively involved in building the Hambantota Port. This will be significant in connecting the southern most part of the island with the existing shipping lanes. This will also provide China a firm ground in the Indian Ocean and in turn reduce its dependence on the existing routes. China still has unsolved issues in the South China Sea and this new port can help it reduce its dependence on that. When this port is completed it expected to have a container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery, an airport in addition to other facilities that are expected to transform it into a major transshipment location. This in addition to other ports which China is developing will be helpful for the Chinese navy for the purposes of repair and re-fuelling.

    Apart from this China has provided Colombo with arms sales including fighter jets, sophisticated radar and anti-aircraft guns. In 2008 Sri Lanka signed an arms deal with Beijing worth US $ 37.6 million. This has proved to be beneficial for Colombo in its war against the LTTE. When Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse visited China he thanked Beijing for its "steadfast support" in strengthening the "war on terrorism". There are also reports which suggest that to show its concern for Colombo and help it in its war against the LTTE Beijing went to the extent that it provided six fighter aircrafts (F-7 jets) free of cost.

    China has also used it veto power in the United Nations Security Council to block the discussion on steps undertaken by the Sri Lankan government in its fight against the LTTE. This was welcomed by Colombo with claims that these moves in the UN, "have been shot down by Sri Lanka's steadfast ally in its war on terrorism, i.e. China." Well it would not be wrong to conclude that this step was taken by Beijing in order to strengthen its influence in the region. It has been Beijing’s policy to not interfere in the domestic matters of any country. But in this regard it did go out of its way to show its support for the Sri Lankan government’s policies.

    With this backdrop both India and US need to take note of the growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka. Thus out of humanitarian concern, India has sent a military medical team to Sri Lanka. Even the US proposed to send a Marine Expeditionary Brigade to northern Sri Lanka to evacuate refugees. But it appears that this was an offer which has not been welcomed by Colombo.

    This increasing closeness between Colombo and Beijing is a reason for concern for New Delhi. During the construction of the port a large number of Chinese experts are to be expected to be present in the region and this is proving to be a security concern for the Indian side.

    Another outcome of Chinese diplomacy is that Beijing has decided to grant Sri Lanka dialogue partner status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This will be concluded at the group’s next summit meeting in Russia, between June 15 and 16, 2009. Sri Lanka with Belarus will be the first countries to receive this status after it was instituted last year.

    This growing Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean has made it quite clear that Beijing is following a planned strategy to encircle India in the sub-continent. The ‘all weather friendship’ between Pakistan and China has been a cause of concern for India for a long time. But with the passage of time China has successfully undermined Indian influence in countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. China is also trying to increase its influence in Afghanistan as well. And with such warming ties between Colombo and Beijing it is quite obvious that China has been successful in diplomatically making India the second most important player in its own region.