Here are my answers to some of the questions raised by media representatives on the growing influence of China in Sri Lanka noticed during the recent war.
1.How important was China’s support ( arms and diplomacy) for Sri Lanka to defeat the Tigers militarily? Would Sri Lanka have been able to achieve the victory on this timescale without China’s help?
On both counts – diplomacy and arms supply – China has rendered invaluable help to Sri Lanka in its war effort against the Tamil Tigers.There are three reasons for this.
a) Chinese arms are readily available at cheaper prices in the global arms market. Sri Lanka had been using Chinese weapons for some time and its troops are familiar in the use of Chinese weaponry. These are important aspects during war situations. [It is good to remember that India was not able to meet Sri Lanka’s military requirements due to political reasons. Even otherwise, Chinese weapons are preferred by many countries on the basis of price and ready availability. China is geared for global weapons export market; India is not.]
b) China has no inhibitions about supplying arms, unlike India which has internal political compulsions that affect arms supply to Sri Lanka.
c. Diplomatically, China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council can help Sri Lanka in warding off international criticism. This was evident when the West wanted UN SC to take up the issue of HR violations in Sri Lanka. China has not hesitated to use its veto powers in such cases. And as China has behaved similarly in case of Darfur, and Burma nobody has high moral expectations from it than say a country like India.
2. Why was China so keen to offer that support?
Strategically China perhaps wants to cultivate Sri Lanka as a friendly cockpit for its Indian Ocean defence as China’s vital shipping lanes are dominated by Sri Lanka. Moreover, Sri Lanka by its geographic location is the southern vanguard of India’s strategic defence. As India is the major competing power in the South Asian region,China would like to strengthen its presence in India’s neighbourhood. She has been doing it in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Burma. Even Maldives is now coming under increasing Chinese attention.
3. Is there a connection with the construction of Hambantota?
Of course [there is]; but to be fair to Sri Lanka, I learn they offered it to India first and as India did not sound enthusiastic, Chinese jumped in.
4. China has consistently maintained that Hambantota and Gwadar are commercial enterprises only. How far do you believe this to be the case and, even if they only that are now, what is stop them being used for other purposes later if the political climate changed?
As of now they are commercial enterprises. But there is nothing commercial in their strategic significance in times of war. For instance Gwadar is being linked through a land link/oil pipeline from China to gain direct access to Arabian Sea. And in war time these infrastructure assets will become military/naval assets.Only the concurrence of the host nation for China to use it in times of war will probably be required. If the compulsions are powerful, China may override such concurrence also.
5. To this extent, how much of a worry is it for India that China is investing in these ports?
While India should not ‘worry’ on each specific Chinese action, it should be concerned about any factor potentially destabilising to its strategic security, introduced in its area of influence. And Hambantota in Sri Lanka is one such case. Unfortunately, our political decision making process on strategic issues is often influenced more by concerns other than national strategic security. India can develop Trincomalee on eastern coast of Sri Lanka as major commercial pub for Indian Ocean traffic. This would balance Chinese influence. But we seem to be lethargic in acting on such issues and we will pay the price when the time comes.
(The writer, Col. R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia. He served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Blog: www.colhariharan.org E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org)