Hambantota port in Sri Lanka has been taken over by China for 99 years. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Hambantota port in Sri Lanka has been taken over by China for 99 years. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sri Lanka recently announced it was shifting its naval base from Galle to Hambantota Port – considered “China-controlled” with a major role in China’s Belt and Road initiative. Sri Lanka has informed China that Hambantota cannot be used for military purposes, while China says the Hambantota Port project is meant to help Sri Lanka become a logistics hub in the Indian Ocean.

But these are standard Chinese checkers; China said Gwadar in Pakistan was only being developed for commercial purposes, yet Chinese marines are already deployed in Gwadar and Chinese naval ships are being stationed there along with Pakistani vessels.

Sri Lanka and China both deny that the Hambantota agreement includes a clause that it cannot be used for military purposes, which makes it explicit that Hambantota will be a joint China-Sri Lanka military base under the pretext that warships are being deployed to protect commercial traffic – same as Gwadar.

The magnitude of Chinese investments in Sri Lanka is part of China’s “debt trap” policy, whereby loan repayment includes strategic gains. Chinese nuclear submarines docking at Colombo since the early 2000s never docked at Sri Lanka Port Authority berths in Colombo mandated for military vessels, but instead docked at Colombo South Container Terminal (CSCT), a deep-water facility built, controlled and run by China – in clear violation of the China-Sri Lanka protocol.

CSCT is a “Chinese enclave” within a Sri Lankan-administered harbor. That is the advantage of the debt trap, and much has happened since then, including Hambantota being leased to China for 99 years.

The Chinese-Sri Lankan military base in Hambantota must be viewed in conjunction with other China bases in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Gwadar and Djibouti are already operationalized. In fact, China has targeted high-grade lasers at US pilots from its Djibouti base.

China is constructing its second overseas military base in Pakistan, at Jiwani on the Gulf of Oman, which is much closer to the Strait of Hormuz than Gwadar; the crow-flight distance between Jiwani and Chabahar port in Iran is just 35 kilometers, whereas Gwadar is 72km from Chabahar.

The Chinese troop presence at Jiwani and Gwadar in conjunction with the Pakistani ports of Pasni, Omara and Karachi (all connected by road to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) will not only provide control of the entire Pakistani coast to China, the continuum will carry on to Africa. With an existing airstrip, Jiwani, which is being showcased as joint China-Pakistan naval and airbase base, could become China’s Eastern Indian Ocean Regional Command, with China’s Western Indian Ocean Regional Command at Djibouti.

India’s plans for a military facility on Assumption Island of Seychelles remain jinxed without approval from the Seychelles Parliament, but Chinese plans for “strategic supply bases” in the IOR for warship berthing, fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft operations and stationing naval staff ashore included Seychelles right from the initial planning.

During the visit by China’s defense minister at the time, Liang Guanglie, to Seychelles in 2011, Seychelles offered China a port to supply ships fighting piracy, which evoked a Chinese response that it would consider seeking supply facilities at appropriate harbors in Seychelles or other countries.

Island nations of the Indian Ocean have been in special focus of China. On his way back from the recent BRICS summit in South Africa, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Mauritius accompanied by his wife, members of the Communist Party of China, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and the head of the National Development and Reform Commission, among others. Mauritius is considered the gateway of Chinese investments into Africa. In April 2017, China was the second-largest foreign investor (US$70 million) and the largest exporter to (17.7%) to Mauritius.

Xi visited Maldives in September 2014, securing Maldivian support for China’s “21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.” China has just completed a road bridge between central Male island and nearby Hululle island, where the international airport is located. The two countries signed a free-trade agreement, while Maldives already owed 70% of its total external debt to China; the “debt trapping” of Maldives is going full steam. Last December, Abdulla Yameen became first Maldivian president to make a state visit to China.

Although both China and Maldives deny plans of any Chinese base in Maldives, there are reports Maldives was looking to let the Chinese build a port at Gaadhoo Island in the south of the archipelago in April 2016, where people had been moved out and Chinese were building roads.

There could have been a secret China-Maldives deal during Xi’s visit to Maldives in September 2014, Xi being the first Chinese head of state to visit the country. Quite naturally China will portray the development in Gaadhoo as for tourism and a berthing and maintenance base for China, Maldives and friendly countries – on the lines of a memorandum of understanding China signed with Seychelles years back.

Recent reports indicate China is looking to establish a joint Ocean Observation Station at Makunudhoo, the westernmost atoll in the northern Maldives in proximity of India. There is speculation that the facility will have military applications with provision of even a military base.

Hambantota, Gaadhoo, Makunudhoo, Gwadar, Jiwani in conjunction Chinese port development activities in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and other parts of the IOR form a strategic matrix that indicates SCS 2.0 is under way. It should be of serious concern to the world.

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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