Sri Lanka limits China’s role to pacify India
Posted on July 27th, 2017

Courtesy The Asian Age

Beijing has the potential to exploit the situation and steamroller its way in dealing with Colombo through a mix of carrot and stick.

The Chinese-built southern Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, strategically located on the world’s busiest sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, has woken up the somnambulists in India as the military standoff with China at Doklam gains greater salience.

Therefore, there was not a little relief felt here when last Tuesday Colombo officially decided to revise its agreement with China on the management of the port in a direction that would leave the overall port security matters to Colombo, permitting the Chinese a major say only in commercial operations.

This was in response to concerns raised not just by India but also Japan and the US that the Chinese-built major port facility might be put to military use by Beijing. The terms of revision are not yet public. But it has been reported that the Hambantota project will be divided into two parts — in the part dealing with commercial operations China will have 85 per cent stakes, and on the side concerned with security uses of the port, Colombo will have 50.7 per cent of the stakes.

 India and China flags (Photo: PTI/File)
India and China flags (Photo: PTI/File

No pragmatist can afford to derive too great a sense of relief from an arrangement of this nature, which, really speaking, appears to be in the nature of a placebo — meant to calm nerves without being the real medicine. Sri Lanka has a debt crisis as well as a balance of payments crisis on its hands. Beijing has the potential to exploit the situation and steamroller its way in dealing with Colombo through a mix of carrot and stick.

China has built a port in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, and is at various stages of completion of port facilities in Gwadar on Pakistan’s Makran coast, Hambantota, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This network potentially serves its maritime silk road” concept as well as docking stations — string of pearls” — for ships of war. There was much negative excitement in India when a Chinese submarine docked in Colombo back in 2014. Fortunately, Indian concerns were noted by Sri Lanka and the Chinese also made appropriate noises, as the game was just starting and Beijing had no wish then to make a big splash.

But a strategic planner is duty-bound to look only at the availability of strategic assets and capabilities and not empty statements of nations. And the outlook from the Indian perspective will need much fixing.

This can take various forms — the building of effective alliances as well as investing in infrastructure in friendly countries. In the latter respect, it has to be conceded that in India what we know best is to repent at leisure. The Hambantota port, which the Chinese built at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion, had been first offered to India by the Sri Lankans, but we found ourselves to be lethargic.

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