Friday, February 13, 2015
Sri Lanka's sudden shift on China port has U.S., India in jitters
Chinese submarines on visit to Sri Lanka
Keith Johnson, Foreign Policy, Feb 12
What the back-and-forth over a port project in Colombo says about Beijing’s plans to dominate the Indian Ocean.
The surprising decision by the new government of Sri Lanka to reverse course and support a billion-dollar Chinese port project underscores the long shadow of Beijing’s influence in the region, even in countries seemingly determined to push back. More importantly, the green light for the port project highlights China’s determination to secure access to a network of coastal installations across the Indian Ocean, a key part of President Xi Jinping’s own pivot to the West.
Last week, an otherwise mundane civil works project leapt into the headlines when newly elected Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena abandoned campaign pledges to block Chinese plans for a $1.4 billion port city in Colombo, on the western coast of the island nation. That raised eyebrows, because his election was widely seen as a blow to China’s budding friendship with Sri Lanka; former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had steadily moved Sri Lanka closer to Beijing.
Last month, just after taking office, new Sri Lankan government officials had expressed concern about the security implications of the Chinese project, which Xi launched with great fanfare on a visit last September. Within weeks, however, Sirisena gave the go-ahead for the port development in order to avoid, as Sri Lankan officials said, a “misunderstanding” with China. (Just to further muddy the waters, the new prime minister tried to walk back the approval late last week in comments to Parliament, but the Chinese firm set to build the port is convinced it will now go ahead.)
Colombo Port City is about a whole lot more than a deep-water harbor, golf course, and Formula One racetrack. It’s part and parcel of one of Xi’s signature foreign-policy initiatives: a double-barreled, $40 billion plan to deepen China’s physical and economic links with neighbors to the West.
That includes development of new road and rail links between China, Central Asia, and the Middle East – dubbed the “New Silk Road.” The other half of the plan is a network of commercial port facilities in the Indian Ocean, meant to connect the dots between China and a region that is increasingly important to it – the “Maritime Silk Road.” China is heavily dependent on the Middle East and Africa for energy and natural resources, and is understandably anxious to safeguard those vital sea lanes. Xi launched the Maritime Silk Road notion on a visit to Indonesia in 2013, and again heavily touted it on a regional road show late last year.
But the problem is that China’s lurch to the West, especially its efforts to increase its physical presence in the Indian Ocean, have neighbors like India worried. A port visit to Colombo last year by a Chinese submarine set pulses racing in New Delhi. Many Indian security analysts see the Maritime Silk Road as an effort to encircle the subcontinent.
The United States, for its part, has spent several years trying to push back against a smothering Chinese embrace of its neighbors in the South China Sea. That’s one reason it’s now keeping a close eye on Chinese infrastructure investments in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Maldives, the Comoros, and the Seychelles that promise to extend China’s economic, diplomatic, and possibly military reach across the entire region.
“You have a bit of a maritime Great Game going on in the Indian Ocean that will involve us, it will involve India, and it will involve, of course, China,” Adm. Gary Roughead, a former U.S. chief of naval operations who is now at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, told Foreign Policy. “I think we have to watch it and look at it with eyes wide open.”
For those watching from Delhi and Washington, China’s efforts in the Indian Ocean seem to be about more than just trade and development. For a decade, some U.S. analysts have fretted over the idea that China is trying to build a “string of pearls,” or network of naval bases, across the Indian Ocean that would turn a regional naval power into a global one. Sri Lanka’s crucial position astride the trade routes between Europe and the Middle East and Asia fits squarely into that notion; Ceylon’s harbors provided a crucial stepping stone for Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British navies in centuries past.