The Allure of Colombo

by Eelapalan blog, March 1, 2015

By Valentine’s Day 2015, Colombo had managed to court back many of the jilted exes.  They are the same coterie of capitals that were once fellow strategic travellers with Colombo but the relationship was starting to strain around 2010.

Neither why nor how these suitors were itching to get back together was a secret.

The end of the cold war and the rise of China and India have made the Asia-Pacific region and South Asia the new theater of the “Great Game”.  The faster rate of change ( given technical advances and economic interconnects), compared to that of the cold war era, has also resulted in pieces of the puzzle moving or coalescing faster than before.

A lot has been written about how much the American leadership will rely on unilateral initiatives to maintain its global leadership.  So that a need for a cold war type detente does not arise. And where a new and emerging power does not think of  itself as an equivalent to the US as Russia had presumably thought during the cold war.  American policyholders understand the difficulties in sustaining a unipolar world of American supremacy. But a global leadership is different than that.  America will continue to retain that for years to come.

In that spirit, this century will be defined more by the American pivot towards Asia- Pacific.

South of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is in a strategic geo location. It is at the very center of a busy and fast growing maritime trade route.  The picture below shows the trade routes in the 2nd half of the 18th century and as of 2011.

What the opening of the Suez Canal and the growth of China’s economy has done to the Colombo port is obvious.  The Colombo port is ranked 34th among the world top container ports, seeing about 4.31 million TEU’s ( Twenty foot Equivalent Units) (1).

Shanghai is now the largest port in the world in terms of container traffic. And China is also home to six of the top ten largest container ports in the world. The sheer volume of maritime traffic to and from China is unprecedented. And most of that Cargo at some point travels south of Sri Lanka.  Obviously, for China to totally ensure its maritime supply security, it needs to dominate its supply route. And conversely, for America to “contain” that Chinese ambition, it needs to deny China total control.  The Indo-American competition courting the Indian Ocean countries, as also mentioned here, is through the paradigm of A2/ AD (Anti Access / Area Denial).

The ports in South of Sri Lanka are transhipment hub ports only. They are not a destination or origination ports.  Thus the port’s economic contribution is only the revenue generated by the port authority for port entry, tonnage, handling etc. And it has some ancillary employment opportunities. The estimated economic value is about $50 per TEU (2). So at 4.3 Million TEU’s, the Colombo port may be generating little over $200 million in revenue per year amounting to approx only 2% of the total revenue.

China “assisted” with a lot of development in the Southern region of Sri Lanka that did not have a large economic multiplier for Sri Lanka. But it did multiply the wealth of many politicians.  China thought this would give it the economic foothold necessary under a prolonged Rajapakse regime. China has now reframed this “Strings of Pearl” strategy on its own terms as the Maritime Silk Road. But the regime change in Sri Lanka has slowed its objectives noticeably.

As argued before,  the west and India will take over from China at an appropriate time once China spends it money.

South of Tamil Eelam

If South of Sri Lanka is a theater of operation for maritime trade, then South of Tamil Eelam ( currently east of Sri lanka )  will be a theater of operation if there is ever a naval confrontation in the Indian Ocean.

Before proceeding further, it is good to refresh on a Burma Connection here.

As America pivots towards Asia-Pacific, Indian policy makers continue to talk about “Look East”. As part of this initiative, India hosts an annual naval exercise curiously called “The Malabar exercise”.

Note: The malabar coast is actually the South-West coastline of India which is current Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The British constantly referred to Eelam Tamils as Malabars during their early part of the rule and the West Tamil nadu coast line as Malabar coastline. Perhaps India chose to use a leftover term of the British to highlight its past glory of maritime prowess.  Though the Tamil Pandiya kings who ruled over the Malabar coast, had success in spreading their empire to the East, it was the Chola king’s, ruling over the coromandel ( Derivation of சோழ மண்டலம் ) coast, who dominated and looked east the most.  The went far and wide towards Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, etc. And of course the LTTE borrowed heavily from that imagination including the tiger flag and its leader Prabakaran’s early pseudonym of Karikalan etc.  A more appropriate name for the Indian exercise would have been Coromandel instead of Malabar.  But regardless, they both invoke a time when Tamils mattered a lot in the Indian ocean. Coromandel may highlight aggression while Malabar highlights the Indian centrality in ancient international trade just as China does with the Maritime Silk Road analogy.   See a map of the Chola trade route here.

The Malabar exercise is an example of why India is sensitive about its projects in Trincomalee and reminds Sri Lanka often of it.  Whether it is the leasing of the oil storage facilities or the power generation.  The purported reports of China helping with an aircraft repair facility in that vicinity, as expected, would have been a redline for India. It is also a reason why the US would work hard to strengthen its bilateral agreements with Sri Lanka. Example would be an upgrade of the ACSA agreement to that of SOFA.  The same attempt did not work out with Maldives last year. It is also the reason why

  1. Indian and American policy makers do not want two power centers in the island.  One power center controlling the East and another controlling the South of the island. In time of confrontation, both maritime interdiction and other operations needs to be coordinated and controlled under a single entity.
  2. LTTE’s supply and resupply routes from Burma, Thailand and Indonesia ( The exact Chola trade routes and ports) crossed a threat threshold when they grew big enough to dominate the Sri Lankan Navy. It also became focus of lot of studies in the American defense circles because of LTTE’s rapid development of know how in asymmetric naval warfare.  

So if China succeeds in reviving its bi coastal strategy through Burma and/or as India ramps up its “Look East” policy, Tamil coastal lines ( In Tamil Nadu and in Tamil Eelam) gain more strategic importance.   But will the Tamil political leaderships on both sides of the strait, use this to convince Delhi and Washington as to why those coastlines remaining as a singular continuum where Tamils are in charge of both sides, as in the ancient days, serves them far better. Much better than an India – Sri Lanka (Sinhala) negotiated maritime boundary that leaves Tamils on both sides permanently upset. As repeatedly argued here, the first step in that strategic argument is to entangle both India and the US through an integrated Tamil economic corridor:  A Tamil economic corridor that connects not just TamilEelam with Tamil Nadu but also extends to Singapore and Mauritius where Tamil influence on those states is significant. The current Tamil political leadership in Eelam continues to allow itself to be entangled in the Colombo centered initiatives rather than focus on a regional context and to highlight how Tamils play a much more contributory role for the economic stability and growth of the region. This not about  separating into a Tamil country but about a Pan Tamil initiative that actually strengthens the Indo – US strategy and aligns Tamils behind it.


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