Is Sri Lanka Becoming A Key Player In China’s String Of Pearls?

By Dinesh D. Dodamgoda

China has offered Sri Lanka new loans for infrastructure projects, worth US$ 2.2 billion dollars. In a reply to a question, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mr. Hong Lei told the news media that in addition to infrastructure loans, both countries agreed to further deepen defence cooperation and maintain exchanges between two defence ministries, whilst they continue to carry out in cooperating defence technology, personal training and other fields. Yet, the spokesperson did not reveal further details regarding the nature of the new strategic cooperation.

Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister Professor G. L. Peiris, mentioned in an interview with Global Times that, Sri Lanka will embrace China’s rise and characterised bilateral ties as “very warm and mutually supportive”. He also mentioned that China has “stood the test of time”, referring to the military support the country extended during the last phase of the war against the LTTE, as well as the support given to Sri Lanka against a US-backed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and First Lady Shiranthi Wikaramasinghe Rajapaksa with Chinese President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan in Beijing, China.

However, the growing China-Sri Lanka relationship has raised US-Indian concerns over Sri Lanka’s strategic priorities in the Indian Ocean and according to some analysts, Sri Lanka is becoming a key player in China’s “String of Pearls” strategy, which is understood as aiming at encountering the American maritime power along the sea lines of communications (SLOC) and connecting China to vital energy resources in Africa and the Middle East.

As it is understood, there are several “pearls” in the Chinese “String of Pearls”: a Hainan Island’s upgraded military facility, a Woody Island airstrip, a container shipping facility in Chittagong, Bangladesh, a deep water port in Sittwe, Myanmar, a fuelling station in Hambantota harbour, Sri Lanka and a navy base in Gwadar, Pakistan. The country’s top oil and gas producer – ‘China National Petroleum Corp’ (CNPC), has recently completed the construction of natural gas pipeline from Myanmar to China, a strategic link which will allow China to avoid any possible military blockade in the Malacca Strait.

These pearls are to ensure an uninterrupted flow of energy supplies to China, especially oil, as China’s oil consumption is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 5.8 per cent in the next 10 years. Since over 70 percent of China’s oil imports come from Africa and the Middle East via sea, it is China’s top strategic priority to secure SLOC from the Middle East and Africa, to China, across the India Ocean and South China Sea.

In response to China’s rise in Asia, in the fall of 2011 ‘The Obama Administration’ issued a series of announcements indicating the US intention to shift the country’s main strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region. The policy was then known as “Pivot to the Pacific”, however, the US does not have any host-nation bases in the India Ocean and the US military presence in the Indian Ocean Island Diego Gracia reflects US strategic concerns in the region. Moreover, the US is planning to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Maldivian government to build military bases in the island, as an extension to US’s Diego Garcia military strategy.

As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted, the United States’ Asia “pivot” has aroused Chinese anxiety and heightened regional worries about intensified US-China strategic competition. The situation has somewhat polarised the region with both China and the US trying to identify allies in the Asia and Pacific region. The US found India and Japan as its explicit allies while China found Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam as its implicit or explicit allies.

Against this strategic backdrop, China and Sri Lanka agreed to further deepen defence cooperation. Sri Lanka is in the opinion that tilting towards China is strategically important as the Defence Secretary once noted “We have understood who is important to us”.
However, this new strategic cooperation will send alarming signals to US and India and the SL government also felt the strategic tension the move might cause as the External Affairs Minister Professor G. L. Peiris guaranteed that the novel move is “not at the expense of any other country, there’s no danger to any other country”.

Even the new Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in his first foreign visit to India assured the Indian Prime Minister that “we are not a threat to each other, nor do we seek to contain each other”.

Yet again, Sri Lanka needs to have a strategically neutral approach in dealing with the Indian Ocean strategic competition and should especially take the Indo-Lanka relations very seriously as a recent poll by the Lowy Institute in Australia suggested that “more than 80% of Indians view China as a security threat, even though China has become India’s largest trading partner”.

2 Comments for “Is Sri Lanka Becoming A Key Player In China’s String Of Pearls?”

  1. MaPer

    Everythiung made in china is cheap and poor quality. GOOD THINGS NO CHEAP. CHEAP THINGS NO GOOD.

  2. Raj

    Since when are Myanmar and Vietnam or even Bangladesh “pearls” of China ?? The vietnamese till recently were protesting in the streets against China and Vietnam has openly asked India and the US to open naval bases in their ports to contain China. India trains Vietnamese personnel and the US, UK and Japan apart from India are openly engaging with Myanmar and investing a lot of money there. Bangladesh was “created” by India, is surrounded by India on 3 sides! Sri Lanka is having delusions like Pakistan of being part of some “axis” of Chinese powers against the US. That is simply delusional as the Chinese are only concerned about mercantile profit. Sri Lanka straddles the sea-lanes therefore it is an “economic” decision to profit from investing in a port there. Militarily, it is extremely inconvenient as India, the US/UK are extremely close while the nearest Chinese port is 1000 kms away.

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