Is Lanka the new challenge for India?

In the heat of May 2009, Sri Lankan forces captured and killed fearsome Prabhakan’s Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Arms and ammunition supplied from China were used mightily by Sri Lankan forces for their anti-LTTE operation that brought with this a gradual change in Sri Lanka’s world view.

Changing equations

So, instead of India, China got the red-carpet welcome in the island nation, including on strategic matters. While because of being a close neighbour New Delhi avoided being tough with Colombo, rather its concerns were accommodated and addressed to the extent that this year in March, India abstained from supporting a UN Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva that called for a probe into alleged war crimes by Sri Lanka in the last phase of its anti-LTTE operation in 2009. Yet, such a gesture together with India’s continued help to Colombo in its developmental course, have in recent days, failed to derive political and diplomatic dividends from the island nation.

In May when India’s stand-off with China in Ladakh was at its peak, one Chinese warship and one submarine were allowed to be there on the island port. But the alarm bells started ringing fiercely when in the first week of November, the Chinese submarine Changzeng-2 and warship Chang Xing Dao docked at Colombo’s harbour for five days. All this took place even while India and Sri Lanka renewed their commitment to protect each other’s economic, territorial and strategic interests during Lankan Defence Secretary and President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa visit to New Delhi in October.

India quickly warned the island country that Chinese naval ships’ presence in the Bay of Bengal was unacceptable. Colombo and Beijing dismissed New Delhi’s concerns. Beijing’s Defence Ministry maintained that these submarines were on refuelling stops during anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean. But this is a ploy; Colombo knowing the rivalry between the two Asian giants, is trying to play off both countries against each other. It has accommodated an alarming number of Chinese warships in the Bay of Bengal.

In the last four years, more than 230 Chinese warships had called at Colombo port for goodwill visits or refuelling. This has raised concern among strategic community as these developments suggest China’s keenness to widen its orbit of patrols beyond Chinese waters for control of highly important sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. Through this, as per the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, more than 80 percent of the world’s oil and other goods are shipped. According to the journal, 40 percent passes through the Strait of Hormuz, about 35 percent through the Strait of Malacca and 8 percent through the Bab el-Mandab Strait — all Indian Ocean’s parts.

Colombo’s actions put off India

China’s attempt to revive its ancient silk route through these Indian Ocean’s sea lanes and Colombo’s consistent move to host Chinese warships in the Bay of Bengal have not gone down well with India’s policy makers. Though it is not clear whether the recent visit undertaken by Defence Secretary R. K. Mathur to Colombo was in connection with such developments or not, but it is apparent that India doesn’t concur with its neighbour’s proclivity with China on issues that have bearings on India’s security.

However, there is no gain saying the fact that for giving Sri Lanka an opportunity to close its ranks with China, New Delhi too is responsible. Tamil Nadu’s politics has been allowed to play short shrift with India’s Sri Lanka policy. In 2009, 2012 and 2013 New Delhi sided with US-backed resolution at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, while countries like China voted against it. Apparently, it was done by the previous UPA government to keep its southern ally, the DMK in good humour. But in turn, it created a gulf in relationship between India and Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Sri Lankan government which otherwise looked at China to fill the void created by New Delhi, largely on political and diplomatic turf.

Lucrative benefits for China

Finding it as a big opportunity, China suffused with surplus money, extended the facility of soft power to take Sri Lanka in its octopus grip. In recent years, China has provided large loans on generous repayments to Sri Lanka besides, investing in major infrastructure projects such as roads, dams, ports, power plants and railways of the island country.

These lucrative benefits derived from Beijing together with September visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s have played a key role in building the current relationship between the two countries. It can be assumed from the fact that Sri Lanka has agreed to join China launched the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). At a seminar held recently, a number of experts including Sri Lankan Central Bank’s Governor Ajith Nivard Cabral and Chinese Ambassador Wu Jiangho spoke high of benefits of the ambitious Chinese project to revive the ancient sea route linking East Asia with Europe via Sri Lanka.

Thereby, with China already completing the task of building the first phase of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, considered to be another major strategic port after Beijing built Gwadar Port of Pakistan and Chittagong Port of Bangladesh, Colombo’s commitment to join the Maritime Silk Road reflects Sri Lanka’s willful decision to go along China’s way at the cost of India’s maritime interests.

There is no denying the fact that the MSR is a key strategic project for China in the Indian Ocean. It is aimed at increasing China’s footprints in South Asian shipping routes wherein Sri Lanka’s Hambantota will serve as a gateway port to China’s design to gain strategic depth all the way up to Iran’s coast. This has thrown a challenge before India which along with giving speed to development of border infrastructure project, has to act fast on its Iran-based Chabhahar Port project and Myanmar’s Sittwe project, a deepwater port which on completion will enhance India’s strategic depth in the Southeast Asian region. The $120 million project which would become fully operational by 2015, is part of India’s Kaladan Multi-Model Transit Transport Project, will connect India from Aizwal in Mizoram to Thailand through Myanmar.

Hope in muddled waters

Amidst this, the appointment of full-time Defence Minister in Manohar Parrikar is seen as the Narendra Modi government’s move to speeden up the process of meeting strategic challenges thrown around India by countries like China.