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Home > Tamil Eelam Struggle for Freedom > International Frame of the Tamil Struggle > The Indian Ocean Region - A Story Told with Pictures > China moves into India's back yard -Sudha Ramachandran in Asia Times > International Relations in the Age of Empire
Indian Ocean Region
is all set to drop anchor at India's southern doorstep. An agreement has been
finalized between Sri Lanka and China under which the latter will participate in
the development of a port project at Hambantota on the island's south coast.
China's massive involvement in the Gwadar project - it has provided most of its funding and technical expertise - has provided Beijing with a "listening post" from where it can "monitor US naval activity in the Persian Gulf, Indian activity in the Arabian Sea, and future US-Indian maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean", Zia Haider, an analyst at the Washington-based Stimson Center, has noted.
Other "pearls" that China has been developing are naval facilities in Bangladesh, where it is developing a container-port facility at Chittagong; in Myanmar, where it is building radar, refit and refuel facilities at bases in Sittwe, Coco, Hianggyi, Khaukphyu, Mergui and Zadetkyi Kyun; and in Thailand and Cambodia.
At this juncture the Hambantota project does not seem to be in the same league as Gwadar. For one, it is not clear whether the Sri Lankans want China to develop Hambantota on the lines of the Pakistani port. Besides, Hambantota does not sit at the mouth of the strategic Persian Gulf. Neither is the port as vital to China's energy security or trade and economic development as are other "pearls" such as Gwadar and Sittwe.
But the significance of Hambantota to China lies in its proximity to India's south coast and on the fact that it provides Beijing with presence midway in the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Ocean is a critical waterway for global trade and commerce. Half the world's containerized freight, a third of its bulk cargo and two-thirds of its oil shipments travel through the Indian Ocean. It provides major sea routes connecting Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia with Europe and the Americas and is home to several critical chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca.
This makes the Indian Ocean important to the Chinese, the Americans, the Indians, the Japanese and scores of other countries, and hence the calculated moves of several powers to consolidate their presence in Indian Ocean littorals.
This is the prime factor motivating the Americans to go for the ACSA with the Sri Lankans. The agreement provides a framework for increased interoperability to transfer and exchange logistics supplies, and support and refueling services during peacekeeping missions, humanitarian operations, and joint exercises. In essence, it will give the Americans a base at India's doorstep.
While the US has described this agreement as "a barter deal on goods and services" and as "a very routine and fairly moderate" agreement, others are warning that it has "major ramifications for the region, particularly India".
"For all the sophistry and spin by the Americans, the ACSA is a military deal and, on the face of it, is loaded in Washington's favor," wrote Muralidhar Reddy, The Hindu's Colombo-based correspondent. "For the US, it is as good as acquiring a base in the Indian Ocean, and at little or no cost.
"Just a few years ago, such an agreement would have been inconceivable given the sensitivities of India in view of the geographical proximity of Sri Lanka. For example, the grant of permission by Colombo to Voice of America to establish its transmitter on the island and the leasing of oil tanks in Trincomalee port to pro-American firms were major bones of contention between India and Sri Lanka for decades," Reddy wrote.
But today New Delhi is silent. This is because of "the changed geopolitical environment in the post-Cold War era" and the changed India-US relationship.
"The provisions of the ACSA cannot be described as being detrimental to New Delhi's interests in the current phase of its relations with Washington," wrote Reddy, adding: "However, in a possible new context, India has every reason to be concerned about the pact."
During the Cold War, India bitterly opposed the US presence in Diego Garcia, 1,600km to the south of India's coast. But today, with India-US relations blossoming, Delhi appears to have given its blessings to a US "base" in a country that is a few dozen kilometers from its coastline.
Today it is only China lurking in waters near its coast that worries India.
But both deals that Sri Lanka finalized with the Chinese and the Americans last
week make India's southern neighborhood more crowded with extra-regional powers.
This has implications for India's security and its interests and ambitions in
the Indian Ocean.