On the southern coast of Sri Lanka, ten miles
from one of the world�s busiest shipping routes, a vast
construction site is engulfing the once sleepy fishing town of
This poor community of 21,000 people is about
as far as one can get on the island from the fighting between
the army and the Tamil Tiger rebels on the northeastern coast.
The sudden spurt of construction helps, however, to explain why
the army is poised to defeat the Tigers and why Western
governments are so powerless to negotiate a ceasefire to help
civilians trapped on the front line.
This is where China
is building a $1 billion port that it plans to use as a
refuelling and docking station for its navy, as it patrols the
Indian Ocean and protects China�s supplies of Saudi oil. Ever
since Sri Lanka agreed to the plan, in March 2007, China has
given it all the aid, arms and diplomatic support it needs to
defeat the Tigers, without worrying about the West.
Even India, Sri Lanka�s long-time ally and the traditionally
dominant power in South Asia, has found itself sidelined in the
past two years � to its obvious irritation. �China is fishing in
troubled waters,� Palaniappan Chidambaram, India�s Home
Minister, warned last week.
The Chinese say that
Hambantota is a purely commercial venture, but many US and
Indian military planners regard it as part of a �string of
pearls� strategy under which China is also building or upgrading
ports at Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe
The strategy was outlined in a paper by
Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher J. Pehrson, of the Pentagon�s Air
Staff, in 2006, and again in a report by the US Joint Forces
Command in November. �For China, Hambantota is a commercial
venture, but it�s also an asset for future use in a very
strategic location,� Major-General (Retd) Dipankar Banerjee of
the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Delhi said.
The British Navy used the Sri Lankan port of Trincomalee as its
main regional base until 1957 and still shares a naval base with
the US on the nearby island of Diego Garcia. China has no
immediate plans for a fully fledged naval base but wants a
similar foothold in the Indian Ocean to protect its oil supplies
from piracy or blockade by a foreign power, analysts say.
Beijing sent three ships on an unprecedented anti-piracy mission
to the Gulf of Aden in December, and in January a Chinese
defence White Paper said that the navy was �developing
capabilities of conducting co-operation in distant waters . . .�
China has cultivated ties with Sri Lanka for decades and became
its biggest arms supplier in the 1990s, when India and Western
governments refused to sell weapons to Colombo for use in the
civil war. Beijing appears to have increased arms sales
significantly to Sri Lanka since 2007, when the US suspended
military aid over human rights issues.
Many of the arms
have been bought through Lanka Logistics & Technologies,
co-headed by Gotabhaya Rajapksa, the Defence Secretary, who is
also the President�s brother.
In April 2007 Sri Lanka
signed a classified $37.6 million (�25 million) deal to buy
Chinese ammunition and ordnance for its army and navy, according
to Jane�s Defence Weekly.
China gave Sri Lanka �
apparently free of charge � six F7 jet fighters last year,
according to the Stockholm International Peace Research
Institute, after a daring raid by the Tigers� air wing destroyed
ten military aircraft in 2007. One of the Chinese fighters shot
down one of the Tigers� aircraft a year later.
arms sales have been the decisive factor in ending the military
stalemate,� Brahma Chellaney, of the Centre for Policy Research
in Delhi, said. �There seems to have been a deal linked to
Since 2007 China has encouraged Pakistan to sell weapons to
Sri Lanka and to train Sri Lankan pilots to fly the Chinese
fighters, according to Indian security sources.
also provided crucial diplomatic support in the UN Security
Council, blocking efforts to put Sri Lanka on the agenda. It has
also boosted financial aid to Sri Lanka, even as Western
countries have reduced their contributions.
to Sri Lanka jumped from a few million dollars in 2005 to almost
$1 billion last year, replacing Japan as the biggest foreign
donor. By comparison, the United States gave $7.4 million last
year, and Britain just �1.25 million.
�That�s why Sri
Lanka has been so dismissive of international criticism,� said
B. Raman of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. �It knows it
can rely on support from China.�