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India Chases the Dragon in Sri Lanka

by Sudha Ramachandran, Asia Times, July 10, 2008

China's rising profile and presence in Sri Lanka has India worried. For one, China's proximity to Indian shores has implications for India's security...

Besides, there is the impact that Chinese (and Pakistani) arms supplies are having on the Sri Lankan government's approach to the ethnic conflict in the country.

Unlike India, which is in favor of a negotiated political settlement to the conflict, neither Pakistan nor China is averse to the Sri Lankan government persisting with the military option in tackling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

BANGALORE - Gripped by civil war for over two decades, Sri Lanka is fast becoming a battleground for the two Asian giants - India and China. The looming struggle for influence has Delhi worried as the stage is on India's southern doorstep.

Separated by a narrow stretch of water, the Palk Straits, India and Sri Lanka have generally had good relations, although India has wielded significant influence on the island for decades.

That influence is now being steadily eroded by China, Pakistan and a host of other countries. China's military ties with Sri Lanka have strengthened, as has its role in the Sri Lankan economy.

Indian OceanLast year, Sri Lanka and China signed a US$37.6 million arms deal for the supply of ammunition and ordnance to the Sri Lankan army and navy. According to the Times of India, China is also supplying Sri Lanka with Jian-7 fighters, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars, armored personnel carriers, T-56 assault rifles, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and missiles.

Chinese economic assistance to Sri Lanka grew five-fold last year to touch $1 billion, thus displacing Japan as Sri Lanka's largest donor. There is also a visible increase in China's presence across the island. In the capital Colombo, China is funding the construction of a performing arts theater. At Norochcholai in Puttalam district, north of Colombo, it is constructing a coal power plant and in the Mannar area China has been awarded a block for exploration of oil and gas.

And at Hambantota, 230 kilometers south of Colombo, the Chinese are building a port at an estimated cost of $1 billion - over 85% of the project is being funded by the Chinese. The four-phase project is scheduled to be completed in 15 years and work on the first phase began last year. The second phase envisages construction of an industrial port with a 1,000-meter jetty and an oil refinery. The entire project will include construction of a gas-fired power plant, a ship repair unit, a bunkering terminal, an oil refinery and storage facilities for aviation fuel and liquefied petroleum gas, reports the Daily News, a state-run English daily from Colombo, adding that although Hambantota port has been planned as a service and industrial facility, "it could be developed as a transshipment port in the next two stages to handle 20 million containers per year".

China's rising profile and presence in Sri Lanka has India worried. For one, China's proximity to Indian shores has implications for India's security. "The semi-permanent presence, which the Chinese are now getting in Sri Lanka, will bring them within monitoring distance of India's fast-breeder reactor complex at Kalpakam near Chennai, the Russian-aided Koodankulam nuclear power reactor complex in southern Tamil Nadu and India's space establishments in Kerala," writes B Raman, retired chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency.

Besides, there is the impact that Chinese (and Pakistani) arms supplies are having on the Sri Lankan government's approach to the ethnic conflict in the country.

Unlike India, which is in favor of a negotiated political settlement to the conflict, neither Pakistan nor China is averse to the Sri Lankan government persisting with the military option in tackling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). And while India - due to domestic political compulsions as well as its commitment to a political solution - has been reluctant to provide the Sri Lankan armed forces with offensive weapons, Pakistan and China have had no such inhibitions. They have met Colombo's wish-list for weapons and this has in turn emboldened the government to persist with military operations, including aerial bombing of Tamil areas.

Indian analysts have often pointed out that it is India's reluctance to supply offensive military hardware to the Sri Lankan government that has prompted Sri Lanka to turn to the Chinese and the Pakistanis. The two have been more than willing to meet Sri Lanka's demands with regard to military hardware. It is not surprising therefore that a grateful Colombo has warmed to Beijing.

Indian officials are drawing parallels between Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

It was India's refusal to do business with Myanmar's generals for years that laid the space open wide for the Chinese to fill. While India and the world ignored the junta, China quickly expanded its economic and defense ties with Myanmar, cementing its influence over the generals. (India is now playing catchup, see Myanmar signs up energy partners Asia Times Online, July 10.)

Similarly, in Sri Lanka, with India reluctant to supply the weaponry that the Sri Lankan armed forces want, it has created a vacuum that China and Pakistan are happily filling.

Unlike India and the European Union, which tick off the Sri Lankan government about abductions and aerial bombing of Tamil areas, China and others are willing to meet its military needs, without asking any questions. Like Myanmar, Sri Lanka today can ignore calls for a negotiated settlement to the conflict thanks to the economic and military support it receives from countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

If China's naval cooperation with Myanmar - the reported lease of Coco Island near India's Andaman Islands and its work in modernizing several Myanmar ports - has given the Chinese access to the Bay of Bengal and a presence near the vital Malacca Strait, the massive Hambantota port project on Sri Lanka's southern tip will give Beijing a significant presence in the Indian Ocean. This is a critical waterway for global trade and commerce, with half the world's containerized freight, a third of its bulk cargo and two-thirds of its oil shipments traversing it.

Indian analysts have often drawn attention to China's encirclement of India, its deepening engagement with all of India's neighbors. This encirclement has now increased with huge Chinese involvement in Gwadar port in Pakistan, ports in Myanmar and now Hambantota in Sri Lanka. China's "string of pearls" is tightening around India, says a former Indian intelligence official, referring to the string of bases in Asia in which China has a presence.

India is understandably worried. Last month, a high-level delegation visited Colombo. Among other issues, India is said to have discussed its concern over the growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka.

Reports in the media say India is stepping up its military support to the Sri Lankan armed forces. The Times of India reports that India is "virtually throwing open the doors of its different military institutions to train Sri Lankan armed forces in counter-insurgency operations" and is offering them "specialized naval courses in gunnery, navigation, communication and anti-submarine warfare".

The "twin strategy of arms supplies and military training, coupled with intelligence-sharing and coordinated naval patrolling is primarily aimed to counter China's ever-growing strategic inroads into Sri Lanka," it says.

As in Myanmar, where India has dramatically toned down its criticism of the junta over the past decade and prefers to call for reconciliation rather than harping on restoration of democracy, in Sri Lanka, too, Delhi seems to be slowly looking the other way - at least in public - with regard to Colombo's human-rights violations.

At a recent United Nations human rights review in Geneva, India - unlike several Western countries which attacked Sri Lanka on its rights record, citing arbitrary arrests, abductions, involuntary disappearances, etc - focused on the positive aspects of the Sri Lankan situation. India fully backed Colombo by drawing attention to the "active role" it is playing in the UN Human Rights Council.

Clearly, the Sri Lankan government has - like the Myanmar junta - learned to exploit the China-India battle for influence to its advantage.

But it is not just the government that's playing the field. China appears to be flirting with both the government and the LTTE. A recent report in Jane's Intelligence Review says the LTTE has not only purchased small arms and ammunition from the Chinese but also heavier weapons such as mortars and artillery.

While it is likely the LTTE purchased the Chinese-origin weapons from the black market, the possibility of Beijing playing the field cannot be ruled out. In which case, it is not India alone that should be worrying about the growing Chinese presence in the island. The Sri Lankan government has reason for concern.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.