Wednesday, 12 November 2014 00:00
Chinese submarine docked at a Chinese-built berth
Almost all the newspapers have reported that India has expressed grave concerns over Chinese submarines visiting Colombo.
The Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region has been highlighted by the foreign policy experts all over the world and it never dawned on anyone to expect that a Chinese submarine would ever dock at a Chinese-built berth at the Colombo Harbour. It is truly a “great leap forward” as far as Chinese defence posture is concerned.
This has triggered alarm bells in India as this may be considered a breach of the letter and spirit of the Indo-Lanka Agreement in which Sri Lanka has provided guarantees that Sri Lanka would not allow foreign military interventions that would be prejudicial to the national security of India.
India’s legitimate security concerns
India has legitimate security concerns as China has made steady inroads into Indian Ocean region through overt and covert means to gain a foothold in the region. There does not seem to be any appreciation of India’s security concerns when the Chinese built berth was allocated for the submarine.
The Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) Chairman says it was due to the inadequacy of the depth of SLPA berth whereas the Chinese naval operations planning division must have calculated the depth of the Chinese-built berth.
Indian, US, Australian and Japanese defence establishments are studying the Chinese advances in both political, economic and defence spheres and India is heavily occupied with countering Chinese capabilities.
Chinese defence intentions
Since the Chinese political system, which is a far cry from the way India and other democratic governments are run, provides no transparency, it would be difficult to fathom true Chinese defence intentions.
It would nevertheless be pertinent to consider the recent advances in Chinese military posture such as its (1) ability to shoot down a satellite; (2) commissioning of an aircraft carrier which can carry stealth fighters; (3) aggressive stance towards Japan and declaration of a controversial air defence identification zone in violation of international law; (4) construction of port facilities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Seychelles, Maldives; (5) construction of a pipeline from Myanmar to China; (6) advances in technological superiority in some aspects of its offensive weapons capabilities; (7) massive allocations for defence spending; (8) interception of Japanese and US patrol aircrafts not in keeping with international norms and professional way of intercepting such aircrafts disregarding the safety concerns; (9) China’s closer ties with Pakistan and border disputes and tensions with India; and (10) aggressive pursuit of continental shelf in South China sea in a controversial manner hurting the feelings of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, etc.
None of these actions have been condemned by Sri Lanka because Sri Lanka relies heavily on Chinese development assistance. Nor did Sri Lanka express concern when the dispute simmered between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands.
Sri Lanka had an ample opportunity to send an emissary and could have even mediated because both countries had a lasting friendship with Sri Lanka. Late President J.R. Jayewardene is still revered in Japan for his soothing words at the San Francisco Peace Conference.
Why was the Japanese PM in Sri Lanka?
When China threatened Japan, it went into a frenzy reviving its defence capabilities which had been for self-defence purposes and Japan comes the under US security umbrella.
US defence priorities are spread across the globe on various other contingencies and Japan took upon itself the need to defend its territorial integrity and to secure vital sea lanes of communications. Even the US defence analysts have expressed deep concern that some of US bases in the Pacific are within the striking distance of Chinese naval capabilities.
Japan cemented defence ties with India mainly because of the Chinese aggressive posture in the pacific. The Indo-Japan joint statement says: “We intend to give a new thrust and direction to our defence cooperation, including collaboration in defence technology and equipment, given our shared interest in peace and stability and maritime security. We have also decided to expand our cooperation in advanced technology, science and technology, people-to-people exchanges, educational exchanges, etc.” (Ref: The Indian Express).
The global order has undergone tremendous changes; it is high time Sri Lanka took a ‘non-aligned’ stance.
Both China and Japan heavily rely on energy imports, especially from the Persian Gulf and from Australia. From a military perspective, both countries would take worst-case scenarios into consideration.
Does Japan have the capability to defend its merchant fleet plying to and from the Persian Gulf to Japan carrying crude oil and other important commodities essential for the survival of its economy? In this backdrop the strategic location of Sri Lanka comes to the fore.
China is building a pipeline from Myanmar to China whereas Japan relies heavily on ocean transport of strategic commodities. Can Sri Lanka allow a Japanese or Indian submarine to dock at a Chinese-built berth? Would this not trigger a diplomatic row?
One cannot forget the backdrop in which the Indo-Lanka Agreement was signed. Sri Lanka pursued a military solution without taking into account the concerns of India. This froze the friendship with India and then political expediency prevailed – ‘Operation Liberation’ came to a halt.
Prabhakaran would have been long gone if had Sri Lanka gone ahead with ‘Operation Liberation’. We disregarded the sentiments of Tamils in Tamil Nadu and the influence of the Tamil Nadu politicians in the Central Government decision-making process.
We are now lucky to have a friend of Sri Lanka of the calibre of Harvard-educated Dr. Sumbramanian Swamy, who is defending the interests of Sri Lanka at the highest level and highlighting Sri Lanka’s contribution in defeating the LTTE.
Dr. Swamy’s contention is that LTTE and its air wing would have been a serious threat to India’s national security, which prompted him to recommend that the ‘Bharat Ratna’, the highest civilian award, be presented to President Rajapaksa.
When it comes to UN voting decisions, Dr. Swamy would certainly speak in favour of Sri Lanka. However Dr. Swamy is also a key figure and advisor to the Prime Minister Modi and has limitations when it comes to India’s national security. We would be spoiling our relations with India when we disregard India’s security concerns.
There are other important trade and economic opportunities that we have yet to exploit from the Free Trade Agreement. The full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and a political solution to the ethnic issue are still in limbo.
The Northern Province Chief Minister is boycotting State functions, thus highlighting an existential problem in Sri Lanka. The Indian High Commissioner laments that Indian assistance to Sri Lanka has been ‘underappreciated’. What does all this manifest? Is not India ‘a mighty neighbour’? Can we afford to neglect the security concerns of India?
(This writer is a freelance journalist and a government affairs consultant. He is a registered member of the American Association of Political Consultants.)