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Countering Chinese Influence in the Indian Ocean Region-the Sri Lankan case


By: K.T.Ganesalingam


This paper is in two parts, the first part focuses on the period under the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa following his government’s successful crushing of the Tamil armed rebellion and the second, since Rajapaksa’s replacement by a new ‘unity’ government headed by Maithripala Sirisena in  January 2015 to-date.

During Rajapaksa’s rule, there was a strong perception that the Beijing-Colombo axis was getting stronger. This, in turn, prompted several suggestions, particularly from an Indian perspective, to stem Colombo’s drift towards Beijing.

It is now clear that by and large  China, through the deployment of soft power has been successful in its domination of regional politics in the Indian Ocean. At the same time, India has been tardy in exercising control over the Indian Ocean. China has embedded itself in the Indian Ocean in a manner that it cannot be easily dislodged. Chinese influence has substantially increased in Sri Lanka as evidenced by its heavy investment in vital infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka such as the Colombo Port Project, Hambantota Port and the  Hambantota International Airport (HIA ). This paper will review the avenues available for India to regain control of this region.

A Review of suggested approaches during the Rajapaksa Rule

It is only fitting to begin this review of suggested approaches by examining the view expressed by India’s former Director of Research and Intelligence Service (RAW), B. Raman, who believes that India’s interest in the Island is driven by sentiments and geopolitics. He argues that India should establish its relationship with its neighbour based on the interests of its own people and geopolitical interests. In pursuing its diplomatic initiatives, India should prioritize its interests. That is, while taking into account the sentiments of Tamil Nadu, it should at the same time ensure that its strategic interests are not compromised or its national interests adversely impacted. Such an approach will not only establish internal stability but also avoid interference by external forces.India needs to act in a way that will not jeopardize the unity of India.  It is vital that strategies and diplomatic initiatives pursued by India incorporate the interest and welfare of Tamil Nadu’.

The Indian research scholar and the director of Chennai Centre for Chinese Studies, D.S. Rajan refers to the Chinese perception that Washington–New Delhi axis is designed to strategically encircle China and that India together with the US is pursuing a policy to defeat China. This perception is valid, indeed India, in the last two to three years has pursued this particular path.

William H. Avery’s research provides valuable insight.  Firstly, in order to strategically encircle China, India is trying to amass its naval power closer to the area around the South China Sea. This is a  strategically unwise move because India does not have any right in this particular sea. It  Operates by relying on countries such as Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia. This is risky. India’s backyard is the Indian Ocean over which India has ownership rights.India should have acted swiftly to prevent China from exercising its dominance in this area. Instead, India has been competing with China in the South China Sea leaving its own backyard, the Indian Ocean, exposed. Competing with China in the Pacific Ocean to exercise its dominance in the South China Sea is of questionable prudence. The best option for India is to increase and strengthen its activity to regain control of the Indian Ocean. India should relate to its neighbours on its border in a friendly manner and engage much more vigorously than at present in economics and trade. As pointed out by Alfred Thaya Mahan, K.M. Panikkar and Vaidya, if India wishes to control Asia and if it needs to be independent, then India will have to control the Indian Ocean.

D.S. Rajan’s views are akin to that of William H. Avery. As Avery is from the US, his views have come under considerable criticism. Yet, the Indian leadership seems to wisely follow the ideas expressed by Avery. Although the US–India alliance is a move to dislodge China from control over Asia and the Indian Ocean, the success of this move is very much in doubt. China’s naval power is much greater than that of India. According to William Avery, the Indian-American community in the US will be the cornerstone of Indo-US relations in the twenty-first century. Their wealth, their political influence, and their interest in both nations will ensure that Indo– US relations continue to strengthen. This is the basic ideological premise of Avery. In order to realise this objective of the US, he urges that India drive out China from Sri Lanka, from the rest of Asia and quite particularly from the Indian Ocean. He suggests many strategies to achieve this objective.

Firstly, he recommends India should substantially increase its defence expenditure because China’s defence expenditure is significantly higher than India’s. In 2010, China’s spending grew by 89 percent, whereas India’s by just 54 percent. In 2010, China spent US$119 billion on defence or 2.1 percent of its GDP. With this money, China has been building an armed force that will make it both a major land as well as a major sea power. China already has an army of 1.6 million, which is the world’s largest. Experts predict that by 2025 China’s submarine force could be larger than the US Navy. This underscores US’ growing fear and China’s evolving strength.   

Avery points out that if India wishes to strengthen its army adequately, by 2022 it should increase its defence expenditure US$200 million. He further points out that based on recent estimates, China by 2020 will increase its defence expenditure to  US$225 million and by 2030 to US$425 million, whereas, India will have to modernize its arms and ammunition. He further notes that India should increase its naval power as it will be an essential component of India’s total military power. India is already preparing for this outcome. Avery also makes the points that India should increase and strengthen its Cyber War strategy. China boasts of being able to win ‘informationised’ (SIC) wars by the mid-twenty-first century. Towards this objective, it has allocated a US$55 million from its annual budget for computer attacks and has a force of 10,000 cyber soldiers who learn in Chinese military schools how to write a virus that can disable enemy systems and steal confidential information. This credible assumption underpins the nature of wars in the future.Indeed, The Cyberwar has already begun. This was tested in 2008 in the war between Georgia and Russia and also in 2010 tested by the US in an effort to control Iran’s nuclear facilities. There have been discussions between China and India on this matter. Many believe that Cyberwar will decide the future Super Power.

Finally, Avery puts forth the idea of the ‘Big stick Foreign Policy’. Only with the resources to fuel continued economic growth can India finance the defence, and investment necessary for a true ‘big stick foreign policy’ and truly enjoy the security necessary to pull its 400 million people out of poverty.

Notwithstanding the above, India should consider acting in tandem with China in certain situations. Although aligning with the US to oust China militarily appears logical, China is an Asian country and India's neighbour. Together, China and India can counter US’s expansion into Asia. Under the current strategy, it is the US that stands to gain by causing India and China to confront each other and help the US to emerge once again as the sole Super Power. The US appears to be making astute moves in pursuance of this objective.

India is traditionally a large democracy that periodically changes governments in a non-violent manner. India enjoys the respect and good relations of the countries in the world and is respected as a just country. India is recognized as a country that had great leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Under the leadership of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and some other earlier leaders India conducted a strong foreign policy. In order for India to rediscover its strength, it needs to reformulate a strong foreign policy that will help regain India’s leadership in the region. In this context, India’s foreign policy in respect of Sri Lanka has been woefully inadequate. The foreign policy initiatives of 2012 and 2013 clearly show this to be the case. After Indira Gandhi, India’s foreign policy has shown a remarkable decline. It is essential that this decline is stemmed and India rectifies its flawed foreign policy.

India’s next step should involve establishing close economic co-operation with Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries. The present trade co-operation with Sri Lanka is only 13 percent, whereas India maintains a 22 percent trade relationship with the European Union. India, in view of its strength and its large population, can become Sri Lanka's most important trading partner. Should this be extended to economic investments, its relations with Sri Lanka will improve. Researchers argue that when the  Indo-Sri Lanka Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is signed economic relations would strengthen. Also, when development occurs in areas such as marine production, education, infrastructure, business facilities and coir production (both countries have a production capacity of 80 percent) and when there is an enduring resolution to the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, the relationship between the two countries will improve. 

China – Sri Lanka axis has introduced a new dimension. As a result, US. India and their allies have formulated their policies to the disadvantage of  Sri Lanka and to those countries that are aligned to China and enjoy close ties to Sri Lanka. This has given rise to a new conflict in the Indian Ocean. Consequently, there is a danger that an Indo – China confrontation could arise due to Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka. This may involve Sri Lankan navy and may well take place within Sri Lanka. Although President Mahinda Rajapaksa had attempted to handle both countries, he was inclined to demonstrate that Sri Lanka was firmly on the side of China. Further apart from China, Sri Lanka has also established a close relationship with Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. In 2013, when UN resolution against Sri Lanka was tabled two warships of Iran were docked in Colombo harbour and they were ready to attack an Australian spy plane which narrowly escaped before the attack was launched. This indicates that Sri Lanka is not interested in maintaining its relationship with US and India. Instead, it further affirms that  Sri Lanka has taken an aggressive and confronting approach in respect of US and India. The new President of China Xi Jing Ping during a telephone conversation with Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, just prior to the Geneva decision that ‘China and Sri Lanka are friendly neighbours for many years. Their bilateral ties have maintained a healthy and a stable development momentum with fruitful co-operation in all sectors. China firmly supports Sri Lanka’s efforts to protect its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity and would like to continue to provide assistance to Sri Lanka within China’s capacity’. This substantiates the point that China–Sri Lanka relationship is steadily increasing. In keeping with this, India’s efforts to countermand this should increase. However, India does not have the economic power or a political strategy to overcome the soft strategy of China. In evaluating the initiative of both these countries, it can be firmly concluded that China is more effective than India.

Regime Change

In January 2015,  New Delhi with Washington’s backing succeeded in bringing about a regime change which saw Rajapaksa thrown out of office and replaced by a ‘unity’ government that included the right-leaning United National Party (UNP) and members of Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The new President was a former colleague of Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena.

As pointed out in an article in South Asian Journal in January 2017, Beijing lost much of its influence over Sri Lanka immediately following the regime change. However, within two years Colombo had renewed its special relationship with Beijing by agreeing in late 2016 to buy military transport airplanes from China and  renew the Chinese-funded Colombo Port Project suspended in the wake of the ‘regime change’ An article published in The Diplomat in September 2017, observed that the management of Hambantota port was no longer under the direct control of the Sri Lankan state as its  operation had come under Chinese  control  via its state-owned company, China Merchants Ports Holdings. Beijing realised this by having “invested” around $1.6 billion in building the port during the Rajapaksa rule and when  Sri Lanka’s new regime was unable to make repayments on the “loan” forced Colombo to sell a 70 percent stake to the China Merchants Ports Holdings to operate the port over a 99-year lease. The formal agreement was signed on July 31.

There were other signs too that indicated the Colombo was striking an independent role Vis-à-vis New Delhi. These included:

  • Colombo’s flat denial of the claim by India’s Road Minister Nitin Gadkari of having conducted discussions on constructing a bridge connecting the two countries.
  • Colombo’s response when Indian soldiers were killed in Kashmir by confining its role to offering condolences to families of the victims but pointedly not withdrawing from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)  summit being held in Pakistan as other south Asian countries had done. 
  • Colombo’s steady refusal to heed to New Delhi’s pressure to move towards an enduring political resolution to the conflict with the Tamil people

By early 2018, it had become clear that the new regime had not delivered on any of its promises on ‘good governance’. As a result, it had become very unpopular among the majority of the Sinhalese and had even lost the support of the Tamils and Muslims. The February 2018 elections to the local councils demonstrated this to be the case and appear to foretell a  return by Rajapaksa, if not as President but as Prime Minister.

New Delhi finds itself in an unenviable position of having gained little through the ‘regime change’ which it had helped engineer but now faced with the prospect of the return of the Rajapaksas who are avowedly opposed to New Delhi. It would appear that China is more than likely to increase its presence in the island of Sri Lanka.

Dislodging China from Sri Lanka, a strategically important island in the Indian Ocean is a challenge that New Delhi will have to address should it want to re-assert its position as the ‘Regional Power’.

K T Ganeshalingam is the head of the Political Department at the University of Jaffna.