The Chinese Shadow in TN’s backyard
By Col R Hariharan
The enactment of the Colombo Port City Commission Act in Sri Lanka last month has created a lot of disquiet and dismay among the people on both sides of the Palk Strait. There has been a lot of hype in the Media about increased Chinese threat to South India as a result of China gaining control of the special economic zone coming up in the Colombo Port City (CPC), overlooking Colombo port.
In the next two decades, the CPC is poised to grow into full maturity as an international financial hub like Dubai and Singapore. The only difference is, the state-owned China Harbour Engineering Co (CHEC), a subsidiary of the China Communications Construction Company, holding a 99-year lease on 85 percent of land will be calling the shots.
Apprehension about CPC is real, not merely for South India, but India as a whole. Of course, commercially Colombo port is important because nearly 70 percent of India’s container traffic passes through it. In strategic situations, Chinese presence close to it would make a difference. But, more than that, the CPC legitimises the huge presence of multifaceted Chinese interests -trade and commerce, logistics, communication and finance and infrastructure.
This gives China a big advantage in challenging India’s domination of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It will also enhance China’s ability to use its unmatched money power, to progress its influence in India’s neighbourhood in the name of development aid.
Many Sri Lankan leaders are equally worried about the increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka. The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcom Ranjith obviously referring to the CPC Commission enactment expressing his concern said, “development is not selling the country’s resources…. the politicians are responsible for protecting the country. Please do not offer our land to different countries.” Former President Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga had warned that Sri Lanka “has all but become a colony of China.”
The SEZ will confer not only commercial and financial benefits to China. But it will augment its intelligence and counterintelligence operations to eaves drop and interfere with Indian communication, track warship movements, enhance cyber threat and satellite tracking. And more than all this, the SEZ can be a useful take off point for infiltrating agents acting against Indian interests. In the past, Pakistan had used its high commission in Colombo to infiltrate Pak agents and terrorists to South India. The Southern states in particular will have to tighten their coastal and airport security to prevent such efforts.
Sri Lanka unique geographic location, midway astride the sea lanes of Indian Ocean, makes it an essential part of China’s maritime security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. China’s concern about Indian Ocean countries joining Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) framework of the US, India, Japan and Australia has been increasing. The China-centric Quad aims at ensuring a free and open international order based on the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific.
China’s State Councillor and defence minister General Wei Fenghe briefly visited Dhaka and Colombo towards end May, when a political controversy was raging in Sri Lanka over the draft CPC Commission bill. After meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gen Wei remarked peaceful development and win-win cooperation is the global trend and ‘right way’ forward. Without mentioning the Quad framework, he said certain major countries were keen to form cliques and factions and seek regional hegemony, which goes against peoples shared aspiration and severely harms the interests of regional countries. He had made a similar reference during his meeting with Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid, emphasising that the two sides should make joint efforts against powers outside the region setting up military alliance in South Asia and practising hegemonism.
It is obvious Sri Lanka would come under tremendous pressure from China in the coming months in tandem with the criticalities of Indo-Pacific strategic situation. Under such circumstances, it is going to be extremely difficult for President Rajapaksa to resist the lure of the yuan, when Sri Lankan economy is struggling to manage its mounting debts.
India and Sri Lanka have good understanding of each other’s security concerns. According to Sri Lanka foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage’s statement in November 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made it clear that Sri Lanka’s strategic security policy will have an “India first” approach, though Colombo was dealing with other countries for economic development. But such sentiments did not prevent Colombo going back on its commitments to India, whether it is on jointly developing the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) or other projects hanging fire like strategic development of Trincomalee port.
India should be prepared for dynamic changes in the trilateral relations involving Sri Lanka and China. As China firm up its presence within the CPC, we can expect it to increase its influence with the body politics of Sri Lanka. It is poised to become an indispensable part of the part of the party politics, similar to a position India had occupied some years back.
Obviously, India cannot compete with China’s money power and its development forays in Sri Lanka have only succeeded in patches. But it can use its strength in shared history and culture with Sri Lanka. In this regard, India has not used the potential of cross strait relations among Tamils to Sri Lanka’s advantage, ever since the muscular intervention during PM Rajiv Gandhi era.
(The writer is a former MI specialist on South Asia. He served as the Head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (1987-90).)