Will Hambantota Port Become a Chinese Military Base?
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
The United States Department of Defence released a report titled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China on 2 November 2021, citing that China has likely considered setting up a military base in Sri Lanka and this had been coming as Beijing has been projecting its power far beyond the Chinese mainland.
With the defeat of US President Trump last year, many thought US President Joe Biden would do away with Trump’s foreign policy which was highly critical of China, but Biden retained the tough lines of his predecessor on China’s punitive trade measures as China is bound to want to expand its power.
The report further says that the People's Republic of China (PRC) is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to project and sustain military power at greater distances.
Beyond its base in Djibouti, the PRC is pursuing additional military facilities to support naval, air, ground, cyber, and space power projection. The PRC has likely considered a number of countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan as locations for PLA facilities. This report comes out of serious research and intelligence sharing exercises by the Pentagon.
The report also cites a global PLA military logistics network and PLA military facilities that could both interfere with U.S. military operations and support offensive operations against the United States as the PRC’s global military objectives evolve, the report cites.
There is also the concept of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, one of the six corridors of the One Belt One Road (OBOR), triggering the worst nightmare for India, in particular.
The tainted image that China has trapped Sri Lanka in the name of development comes with the OBOR, which is gathering momentum in the South Asian region. The OBOR is seen as a ‘debt project’ and is strengthening its hold on the island. Maritime experts have even cited Sri Lanka as a cautionary example for other countries considering trade deals with China.
Of course, such claims by the U.S. are part of their growing concerns that China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will militarily and economically overtake them but whether Sri Lanka should worry about their concerns is a matter of time, as there are 97 (counting from 2018) odd years to see the outcome of the Hambantota Port taken over by Hambantota International Port Group (HIPG), which is yet to attract major international investments from leading countries, with the exception of Chinese investors, but has the potential to do so. There was also the port facility offered to export of locally manufactured goods, like 10 units of Dutch Lanka Trailers recently exported through a RORO. The port also signed an agreement with the Shenzhen Xinji Group for the construction of a plug and play ‘Park in Park’ manufacturing facility. Also, Lanwa Sanstha Cement Corporation (Pvt) Ltd signed a contract with the Port whose chairman is none other than controversial figure Nandana Lokuwithana.
The current Government raised its concerns over HIPG's failure to attract international investors as expected to Hambantota Port. Even President Rajapaksa tried to negotiate with the HIPG to reduce the number of lease agreements, but it was futile.
It would be the same for Port City, which has gigantic plans to entertain wealthy businessmen and countries, but having leased the port city for a 99-year lease, the countries that have antagonised China will never step in to do business with anyone. Although Port City’s development plans are underway, economic growth will not be seen in the next couple of years due to the ongoing pandemic and shattered global economy.
As the world is now called a global village, no country can be isolated, and all countries are forging ahead to seek the assistance of powerful countries. Those influential countries have a say in smaller countries like Sri Lanka. In this context, the US, the UK, Canada, Japan, India, Germany, Russia, France, Australia, and China are at the forefront of the global village.
The common argument is that the US has over 800 military bases around the world and they have no right to point at China for having one or two military bases.
However, Sri Lanka being China-aligned and awarding land as a loan swap has caused disturbance to the maritime activities of those major players, considering the fact that it also combines with China’s military influence in the Indo-Pacific and in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
When former US Secretary of the State Mike Pompeo visited the island in October 2020, he reminded President Rajapaksa that Sri Lanka should resist China’s authoritarianism and attempts to control the country. Sri Lanka, Asia’s oldest democracy, can become a ‘beacon’ for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. He said the US's activities are quite a contrast to what China seeks. "We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator. The US comes in a different way. We come as friends and as partners," he pointed out.
The pendulum is shifting away from China to India, Europe, and the US – Prof. Rohan Gunaratna
Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) as the Director General, said that with the rise of China, the geopolitical rivalry between the West and Beijing has intensified. As Sri Lanka is the gateway to the Indian Ocean, the Chinese, Americans, and Indians are lobbying Sri Lanka for power and influence. "So, to curtail the growing influence of the Chinese, President Rajapaksa advocated a foreign policy of neutrality. The US claim that China wishes to build a base in Sri Lanka is not consistent with the current and emerging foreign policy thinking of the Sri Lankan contemporary leadership."
"If Colombo permits the Chinese to build a base, it will compromise the foreign policy of neutrality. Since President Rajapaksa assumed office, he has been working with all blocs of power to build Sri Lanka." He also said that since last year, the pendulum has been shifting away from China to India, Europe and the US.
Nobody will be allowed to Hambantota without China's permission – Maj Gen. (Retd) Boniface Perera
But Maj Gen. (Retd) Dr. Boniface Perera said that the US has come to the conclusion that China has considered a military base establishment in Sri Lanka, simply because China's energy route is across Sri Lanka's Hambantota, on which 43 per cent of China’s total crude oil is being transported as the requirement comes from the Middle Eastern region. He added that Hambantota is extremely important for China to protect its energy route and they have now acquired it on a 99-year lease. He said that this port would be used for ‘dual purposes’.
He says Sri Lanka should be cautious because in the event of a dispute between China and the US, China might mount pressure to use Hambantota as a facility base and Sri Lanka would not be strong enough to say ‘no’ to China.
He stressed that China is far behind the US in terms of military power. “They are hoping to achieve military supremacy by 2049. More importantly, China needs to first secure the energy route. Then their economic expansion needs to be secured. In the future, they will focus more on Asia and Africa. One day, China will be powerful in the South China Sea region, and one day they will take Taiwan for sure. China cannot claim supremacy in all fields if it lacks military power. However, the United States will remain a superpower until 2050," Dr. Perera predicts.
He also said that China is hoping to develop Hambantota as a military base. "They will hold it till the right time. Nobody will be allowed to Hambantota without Chinese permission. We are not strong enough to stop military ships and submarines coming for logistic reasons”.
Chinese military presence overseas is both possible and desirable – Dr. Raymond Kwun-Sun Lau
Assistant Professor Department of Political Science and Sociology, North South University, Bangladesh,
Dr. Raymond Kwun-Sun Lau, speaking about the nature of the issue and why Sri Lanka was mentioned in the Pentagon report for 2021, stated that the long-term strategic distrust between the US and China, as well as the intensifying strategic competition between the two major powers since 2008, have contributed to the inclusion of Sri Lanka in the report.
Dr. Lau suggested that this may end of grand consensus or the convergence of fundamental US-China strategic interests: China's wanting to be integrated and the US's wanting to integrate China.
An increasingly confident Chinese leadership no longer feels the need to reassure the world that China's ‘rise’ on the world stage is peaceful and non-threatening in nature. Therefore, a Chinese military presence overseas is both possible and desirable or even necessary (to demonstrate China’s great power status, just like the United States).
"China’s self-perceived shrinking power gap with the US and relative to the US and its desperate desire to be treated as a co-equal major power have highlighted the failure of a long-standing US effort to integrate China peacefully into the US-led international system," said Dr. Lau.
From Beijing’s perspective, Sri Lanka has (almost) always prioritised developing its relations with China and firmly supported China's positions on issues concerning its core interests (e.g. Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang). Therefore, China sees Sri Lanka as a reliable partner in South Asia, making Beijing desperate to make use of its close relationship with Sri Lanka to counterbalance the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, added the Professor.
He also says that India is still perceived by China as the ‘weakest link’ in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). Strengthening ‘pragmatic military cooperation’ (Beijing’s rhetoric) with Sri Lanka is a deliberate tactic used by Beijing to (i) test New Delhi’s reaction/ bottom line; (ii) demonstrate to the US (given India's being perceived as an important US ally in the QUAD) the raison d etat of China’s great power status (whether its rise/ development is peaceful or not no longer matters), he stressed.
The worry is that an expanded Chinese commercial presence around the world would eventually lead to an expanded military presence. At a cost of USD 59 million, China established its first overseas military support base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. They also have a signal intelligence facility established in Myanmar and are ready to fund USD 10 million for a military base in Eastern Tajikistan in the Gorno-Bakakhshan Province after the Parliament has given its approval. According to international reports, Tajikistan wanted China to keep the security threats from Afghanistan at bay and to assist in combating organised crime. They will also be installing special equipment for the Interpol information system at that base.
Sri Lanka and Djibouti are strategically important locations to safeguard China’s sea line of communications – Dr. Satoru Nagao
Dr. Satoru Nagao, Fellow (Non-Resident) at Hudson Institute who has delivered his lectures at the INSSSL, said the Pentagon report clearly mentioned that "Beyond its base in Djibouti, the PRC is pursuing additional military facilities to support naval, air, ground, cyber, and space power projection. First and most importantly, there are similarities between Sri Lanka and Djibouti. Both Sri Lanka and Djibouti are strategically important locations to safeguard China’s sea line of communication. In both Sri Lanka and Djibouti, China has invested heavily and created huge debt. And, when China started the infrastructure projects in both Sri Lanka and Djibouti, China denied using these infrastructures for military purposes. However, in the case of Djibouti, China opened its first overseas military base in 2017. "
But in the case of Sri Lanka, Dr. Nagao said, "China has not opened a formal naval base despite China's ability to use the port as a naval base. What sort of capabilities does the naval port provide for naval warships? Supplying water, food, and fuel is important. The crews of the warships need to take a rest. If the port can maintain and repair warships, that’s purely a military use. Under these conditions, the current port in Sri Lanka can support the Chinese Navy as a supply base. Therefore, if China is considering setting up supply bases in Sri Lanka, it would be obvious and come naturally”.
He also recalled that recently, there were many Chinese workers seen in military uniforms in Hambantota. “Indeed, it is impossible for the Sri Lankan Government to distinguish between Chinese soldiers and Chinese civilians. Even though the PLA has accepted many volunteers now, there is still a conscript system. In this case, many Chinese men are former military soldiers. Therefore, there is a real possibility that China will set up military bases in Sri Lanka before the Sri Lankan Government realises the plan,” he added.
The OBOR project is linked to the Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which includes the construction of Gwadar Port, giving China direct access to another critical energy shipping chokepoint in the Straits of Hormuz, has also commenced on China’s second overseas military base in Jiwani, Pakistan.
QUAD considers that the Hambantota Port is a backlog – Brig. Gen. Dr. Umesh Kumar Bhattarai
The author of Conflict to Peace: Transition in Nepal, Brig Gen. Dr.Umesh Kumar Bhattarai, Nepal Army (Retd), who is a strategy and security analyst, tells Ceylon Today that no country would come to assist another country’s national interest and that it would be purely for political and commercial gains. He added that the QUAD considers Hambantota Port a backlog and Sri Lanka should not let China ‘use’ them in return for supplying weapons to wipe out the Tamil Tigers. He also considers that the port will be posed as civilian use for military capability in the next 96 years or so.
Dr. Bhattarai also stated that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Compact a US grant, has been delayed and that the Chinese are alleged to be blocking it from the inside. He said China does not work on political grounds but have the ability to work with the people’s sentiments and Sri Lanka and Nepal has fallen to it.
Dr. Bhattarai says in his book that "China has had cordial relations with Myanmar since the day it became the first country to recognise the military junta government in 1988." As part of its role as an arms supplier, China has helped Myanmar to construct a naval base from where it can monitor India's deep water interests in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman coastal sectors. On the other hand, India has established better ties with Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and other ASEAN countries, which has made China cautious about India's role playing against China's interest in these countries. So, unless and until the power balance is not maintained in South Asia, the threat of conflict will always be there and peace as well as development will be jeopardised considerably in the region".
Meanwhile, Chinese Government spokesperson Wang Wenbin recently said, "What is happening in Afghanistan clearly reveals the US definition of ‘rules’ and order’. The US can arbitrarily launch military intervention in a country without shouldering the responsibility for the suffering of the people in that country; it gets to decide when it wants to come and leave without consulting the international community, not even its allies; it can wantonly smear, suppress, coerce, and bully other countries for the sake of ‘America First’ without paying any price. This is the kind of order that the US wants. It always tries to defend its selfishness, bullying, and hegemonic actions by citing ‘rules’ and ‘order’. But how many people would actually buy it?
China’s relationship with Sri Lanka has reached a point where Sri Lanka cannot reject or say ‘no’. A fine example is the organic fertiliser fiasco and China's taking the State to the courts and demanding USD 8 million in demurrages. They are suing the scientists of the National Plant Protection Service and have also blacklisted the People’s Bank.
On 12 October 2021, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released the paper China's Influence in South Asia: Vulnerabilities and Resilience in Four Countries. It says that China’s economic and political footprint has expanded so quickly that many countries, even those with relatively strong State and civil society institutions, have struggled to grapple with the implications. The paper points out that with the new channels of influence, China has developed expectations of exceptional consideration of its interests and is willing to exercise pressure in its pursuit of special treatment.