Sri Lanka tilts to Beijing

Author: David Brewster, ANU

A sea change is occurring in Sri Lanka’s strategic orientation. Recent developments suggest that Sri Lanka is becoming China’s new best friend and security partner in the eastern Indian Ocean. This would represent a major change in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and could have significant consequences for regional security.

The immediate cause célèbre is the visit of a Chinese submarine and announcement of a new Chinese-built port in Colombo in September, followed by another visit in early November. A third is rumoured for later this month. These are no ordinary naval visits: their nature, frequency and timing are extraordinary. The first occurred during state visits by Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Claims by Beijing that its nuclear-powered attack submarine is on deployment against Somali pirates are risible. Despite Colombo’s initial attempts at secrecy, the visits seem to be a deliberate signal by China that it intends to maintain a submarine presence in the Indian Ocean and that Sri Lanka will play an important role that strategy.

Sri Lanka has a longstanding policy of showing accommodation and reassurance towards India. In particular, Sri Lanka will not allow itself to be used by other powers to threaten India’s security interests. This policy has been followed more or less since independence. It was reflected in a 1987 agreement under which Sri Lanka committed not to allow any of its ports to be used by any country for military purposes in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests. Overall the strategy has served Sri Lanka well in dealing with its huge and sometimes difficult neighbour.

This stance has only really been called into question once, with disastrous results for Sri Lanka. During the 1980s, in the early days of the Tamil civil war, Colombo toyed with offers of foreign military assistance that some feared would lead to the establishment of a US naval base at the northern port of Trincomalee. These concerns were a significant factor in India’s decision to provide support for the Tamil insurgency and India’s subsequent military intervention in Sri Lanka.

What has caused a change in Sri Lanka’s stance? In recent years there has been significant Chinese investment in high profile infrastructure in the country. The Chinese presence in Colombo is palpable. Some of these projects, such as a new port at Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka, have led to claims that China seeks to build a string of naval bases across the northern Indian Ocean. It seems unlikely that Hambantota will become a formal Chinese naval base, but there is little doubt that the Chinese navy will be seeking dependable access to replenishment facilities in the region.

There have been increasing indications over the last six months of Sri Lanka’s willingness to host Chinese military-related facilities. It was recently revealed that China will take over management of a new and enlarged Phase II Hambantota port with berths dedicated for Chinese use. In July the government also revealed it intended to establish a Chinese-run aircraft maintenance facility near Trincomalee, ostensibly to support Sri Lanka’s air force. After strong protests from Delhi, the government may establish this facility in another location, perhaps next to Hambantota port. If nothing else, this is a reminder that the both the Chinese navy and air force will be new players in the Indian Ocean.

The timing of these developments is odd. Beijing is currently promoting what it calls the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ that would involve the construction of ports and other infrastructure across the Indian Ocean. This would include a string of dedicated component manufacturing facilities that would feed back to assembly in China — perhaps something akin to Japan’s ‘flying geese’ strategy in the 1970s. Sri Lanka has volunteered itself as China’s prime partner in this initiative. Yet both vociferously claim that the strategy has no military implications. The recent security developments seriously undermine these claims.

China may be simply seizing an opportunity. Despite some of the hype, China actually has few ‘friends’ in the Indian Ocean that could be depended upon to host military-related facilities. Pakistan is of course a long-standing ally, but its stability and dependability is looking increasingly questionable. Indeed, Xi recently cancelled a planned trip to Islamabad over security concerns. Many have also tagged Myanmar as a de facto ally of China. But Myanmar has never allowed China to use its military facilities, and its political dependability to China is also increasingly uncertain. Sri Lanka, with a stable and cooperative authoritarian regime strategically located in the central Indian Ocean, ticks many of China’s strategic boxes.

How will India respond to these developments? Delhi has expressed anger at these visits in the strongest terms and has told the Rajapaska government that they are ‘unacceptable to India’. But despite strong trade and defence links, including considerable training for Sri Lanka’s military, India’s options are relatively limited. Attempts to isolate the Rajapaksa government are unlikely to be considered an option: Delhi believes attempts to isolate Myanmar’s military regime after 1988 were a major strategic mistake that drove the regime closer to Beijing for decades. Delhi may try to reverse Colombo’s current path through a combination of engagement and coercion, although it is not clear what leverage it has. But decision-makers in Colombo will (or should) be acutely aware of Delhi’s actions in the 1980s when it perceived Sri Lanka may be used by other powers as a threat to India.

David Brewster is Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University.