Focus Shifted: China’s Presence in SL under India’s Microscope
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
India has been transparent about its security surveillance on the maritime border lately with the advent of China in Sri Lanka in the backdrop of the Indian Ocean gaining prominence in the 21st century and becoming an axis for geo-strategic and geopolitical competition among world powers.
There has been a noticeable change in India’s stance, shifting its focus to the Indo-Pacific region from the Western bloc, where Sri Lanka is located. India stepped up its maritime security and on 22 July 2021 and took Sri Lanka by surprise by sending the Flag Officer Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral Ajendra Bahadur Singh for an observation tour in a naval helicopter from the Pamban Kundukal beach near Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu to inspect the maritime border and islands in the vicinity of the Mannar Basin.
Also for the first time, an Indian Navy submarine - INS Sindhushastra, was seen at the V.O. Chidambaranar Port Trust in Tuticorin (Thoothukudy) on 19 July, which is around 145 nautical miles (268.54km) from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka.
No threat to maritime security
India in its discussions with Sri Lanka has already reiterated its stance that as long as bilateral ties between Sri Lanka and China are purely economic, they will not be worried, but will monitor developments as the Chinese will be stationed in the island for the next 99 years or more based on the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two countries.
After a 20-year hiatus, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was seen over Colombo with 23 aircraft at an air show.
They said they were invited by the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) to mark its 70th anniversary, but at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and a major financial crisis keeping the country on alert, an air show did not fit the climate Sri Lanka was in.
These exercises are to showcase solidarity with the U.S. and its allies and act as a deterrence to China. India will keep constant watch and Sri Lanka may face retribution if any negative implication in the maritime sector is seen with the Chinese.
Earlier, Sri Lanka came under severe criticism over a Chinese submarine and a warship that entered the Colombo harbour in 2014. There is no bar for submarines in entering the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) other than territorial waters 12 nautical miles off coast. In terms of Chinese submarines, they were far from their coast, and in case of an emergency there can be many issues as countries don’t permit submarines to enter.
It is also indicative of pressure tactics and headway they have been able to make in getting Sri Lanka into their debt trap, and visits by the Indian Navy and Air Force are ‘nails in the coffin’.
“Until they are economic ties, it would be fine, and in any case if their presence has any security implications, India will have zero tolerance,” an Indian maritime expert underlined.
China is not a substitute
China’s presence in Sri Lanka is not full of fanfare. Both the Chinese and Sri Lankan Governments are under the geopolitical microscope constantly and for the umpteenth time, the Government of Sri Lanka has reiterated that the Chinese connection is purely a commercial agenda.
Many of the activities indulging the Chinese clearly show that the country has accepted China as a substitute to save Sri Lanka from its current crisis but is in fact isolating the island from the countries that have helped and supported it for decades.
On the other hand, China claims it is creating a win-win cooperation with countries under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has introduced itself to Sri Lanka, but from a geopolitical perspective, the U.S. sees China as a growing challenge in the backdrop of the Asian giant controlling the South China Sea and not keeping it open and free for other world powers.
China and the U.S. have continuously increased their military presence in the Indo-Pacific, with the latter having enhanced its quadrilateral strategic cooperation (QUAD) with Japan, Australia, and India, with many in the pipeline (like the UK) to defeat China militarily, viewing its approach in the South China Sea as problematic.
A comprehensive article, ‘Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific’, written by Muhammad Saeed, says that China’s military budget has undergone a nearly double-digit annual increase over the past two decades. Other regional powers, like India and Japan, are also attempting to flex their military muscles by purchasing modern weaponry. Before long, the Indian Navy is expected to grow into the world’s third or fourth largest Navy, he opines.
India, being the regional superpower, finds China as the ‘threat’ in the Indian Ocean Region and a deterrent to its progress.
China and India were on the fence in terms of bilateral ties, but following the Galwan Valley clash of June 2020, India’s assertiveness towards China has changed with more bitterness surrounding China-Pakistan, China-Nepal, and China-Sri Lanka ties strengthened by BRI. It is only the incumbent Maldivian Government and Bangladesh that are carefully handling China given its repertoire of trapping countries in debt and procuring land for the unsettled loans.
India has been strengthening its ties with regional powers, but seeing China’s strong foothold in Sri Lanka, it has shifted its focus completely to handle their presence in the island for the next 100 years or more.
Hambantota Port lease – beyond 100 years
It should be recalled that Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, in an interview with Ceylon Today, said that the previous Government had awarded the Hambantota Port to China not only on a 99-year lease, but also on an extension for another 99-year lease, as explained in the clauses of the agreement between the two countries. He pointed out a provision for a further 99-year extension of the lease, “As we are implementing our policies, giving attention to all countries, the previous Government made a mistake on the Hambantota Port deal when they cancelled the lease and gave it for a longer period of 99 plus years; another 99 years once the first term ends,” he stated.
It is similar in the case of Port City, where 116 ha have been leased to Chinese developers for 99 years outright from the reclaimed land. The Government installed a powerful economic commission to administer the reclaimed city by amending the law to favour investors.
Indian security beefed up
As soon as the Port City was commissioned, it rang alarm bells in Tamil Nadu – India’s closest State to Sri Lanka. The South Indian State’s Media reported how Police had been beefed up when Port City was commissioned with unique laws. The 116 ha of reclaimed land was offered to China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) - Port City’s developer.
Following Vice Admiral Singh’s inspection tour over the Mannar Basin, the Indian Media reported that several patrol vessels will be deployed to curb illegal activities including the transport of drugs, sea cucumbers and sea horses and illegal migration.
Another power-show by India was the three-day joint maritime exercise with the UK in the Bay of Bengal from 21 July.
12 ships, two submarines, over 30 aircraft and almost 4,500 naval personnel took part in the exercise.
A carrier strike group led by the British Royal Navy’s 65,000-ton aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, alsoparticipated in the exercise. The HMS Queen Elizabeth recently entered the South China Sea which is largely claimed by China.
“China claims almost all of the 1.3 million-square-mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory, and it has denounced the presence of foreign warships as the root of tensions in the region.” Despite a historic decision in 2016, the international tribunal in the Hague ruled against part of China’s claims to the sea,” George Allison writes.
This is perhaps a signal to China that the Western allies are marshalling forces against them, and in the coming years, as the pandemic settles, a significant China push-back strategy will be in full swing. Both the U.S. and UK have angered China previously by carrying out Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea.
The Royal Navy said that the UK’s Carrier Strike Group will visit 40 nations, including India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore in the next couple of months.
The Speaker of the Maldivian Parliament, former President Mohamed Nasheed on seeing the HMS Queen Elizabeth entering the South China Sea, tweeted, “I was pleased to see a British Carrier Strike Group enter the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands, to ensure the right of navigation around the islands”.
China’s Defence Spokesman Tan Kefeitold the South China Morning Post last Tuesday (27) that they believe that the South China Sea should not become a sea of great power rivalry dominated by weapons and warships, “The real source of militarisation in the South China Sea comes from countries outside this region sending their warships thousands of km from home to flex muscles. The Chinese military will take necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
It’s not a surprise that India will monitor Sri Lanka for Chinese military personnel or whether the communist country has assets in the island. There is also doubt whether it is only merchant ships that call at the Colombo and Hambantota ports.
India has recently aquired high endurance long range maritime patrol aircraft, UAVs and drones. In addition to monitoring the Chinese, the Indian Government will also share information and hold joint efforts with Sri Lanka’s tri-forces.
The Chinese, who were invited to develop Hambantota in 2008, are making inroads to Sri Lanka and has reached the tip of the Northern Province. Chinese nationals are also being hired to dredge historic tanks and are involved in other development works around the country unabated.
In 2018, an archaeological team led by Chen Jie from Shanghai Museum stepped into Sri Lanka on a 40-day excavation mission to learn more about the ancient Maritime Silk Road. They travelled to Jaffna and began excavations, claiming there were ancient Chinese ceramics scattered in the North while the native Tamil population watched in bewilderment.The Indian High Commission also checked with the Government over the Chinese advent in the North.
In 2020, the Chinese were invited to bid for three hybrid wind power projects in the North, along with India, and the Ceylon Electricity Board announced that the Chinese won the bid.
Minister of Fisheries Douglas Devananda, sensing the veracity of the geopolitics in which Sri Lanka is trapped in, has halted the project being given to the Chinese, sources say.
New Delhi parlayed with the Sri Lankan Government last year and pressed them not to award it to the Chinese as it was a threat to India’s maritime security.
The Chinese have been seen again engaging in sea cucumber farming in the North, in Kilinochchi’s coastal area. The Chinese company, GuiLan Sea Cucumber Hatchery and Farm came under hammer as local fishermen decried that their business had been taken away. The sea cucumber breeding by the Chinese, according to the Fisheries Minister, will be fully run by the locals.
Although the Government says the Chinese were engaged in sea cucumber business beginning in 2017, the official document shows they had signed the deal in April 2021.
Chinese presence in the Sea of Ariyalai in Jaffna in Gaudarimunai bordering Kalmuani (about 45 km by road and 6 km by sea and 381.41 km to Chennai, India) shocked the northerners. Several Tamil politicians rushed to the farm and saw sea cucumbers being bred by the Chinese. There were a few locals working as farm hands but they did not want to be identified.
The locals allege that the Chinese company did not obtain a licence, but were engaged in manner with the consent of the Ministry of Fisheries.
The licence is also for a limited sea area, but the Tamil politicians have said that even over 8 ha has been given to another sea cucumber farm operation on Delft Island, which is just 421km from South India. “The Government is ignoring the geopolitical factors and India’s maritime concerns and foolishly indulging the Chinese to disturb the decent bilateral ties Sri Lanka has with India,” MP S. Sritharan of the Tamil National Alliance said.
Why Sri Lanka cannot reap while being strategically positioned in the IOR is an open secret. It is because it has not committed to its nonaligned policy but instead has tilted towards China while under constant pressure from post-war development undertakings, the Easter Sunday attacks and now the global pandemic.
In this frenzied situations, China is facing off both locally and abroad. Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, in a bid to break the ice, has held meetings and several heads of foreign missions in Sri Lanka as soon as he took office. He met two groups of envoys in the last two weeks to strengthen ties. It’s a wise move, many experts say.
To reap from “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”, Sri Lanka should open all gates to visitors from all countries and douse the emblematic brand that Sri Lanka is controlled by China.
Flying over Mannar Basin, not a routine surveillance – Col. Hariharan
Rtd. Col. Ramani Hariharan, a maritime expert, noted that India is tightening patrolling of sea routes for narcotics and human traffickers. This is in response to an increase in drug trafficking intercepted by the Sri Lankan Navy, the Indian Coastguard (CG) and Indian Navy. The CG’s boat and aircraft strength has been increased. The National Investigation Agency’s interrogation of Muslim suspects with links to Tamil Nadu and Kerala has unearthed some more information about their connections. This could also be to prevent arms, explosives, and money reaching to finance such activity.
“The Indian Air force actions over the Bay of Mannar aren’t routine,” he said. He also added, “However, India is tracking all Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean 24x7. It’s centralised”. He also believes that QUAD member navies are probably sharing it in real-time. “If they’re not doing it, I’m sure it will be available on call as and when required. So, all India’s activity in IOR now has implications for Chinese involvement,” he added.
He also pointed out that Chinese activity in Sri Lanka is nothing new. Their activities in the Special Economic Zone in Colombo will be closely watched not only by India but also by the U.S. Navy, he added.