Any port in a storm is a familiar expression, but in Sri Lanka it is a port that is causing a storm.
The port in question, which is being constructed with Chinese help, is on the country’s southeastern coastline, in a town called Hambantota.
UK newspaper, The Times sparked controversy earlier this month with its claim that the $1 billion facility had a future as a docking station for the Chinese navy – supporting its patrols of the Indian Ocean and protecting China’s supplies of Saudi oil.
The newspaper quoted US and Indian military planners as suggesting Hambantota was part of a “string of pearls” strategy – which included the building or upgrading of ports in Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe in Burma. The goal: to project Chinese naval power from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.
It is true that China’s navy is on the ascendant – in a fashion not seen since the Ming Dynasty and the armadas of Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century. Last month, China paraded its new fleet in a symbolic review at Qingdao (see WiC13).
It is also true that from a naval perspective, a foothold in Sri Lanka has unequivocal strategic value. In The Hinge of Fate, one of the volume’s of Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War, the island (then called Ceylon) was identified as crucial. “The only really good base for the Eastern Fleet we were forming was Ceylon,” states Churchill. “The vital point was to keep Ceylon. We must run great risks to hold Ceylon.”
China has denied it has militaristic pretensions, with a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Ma Zhaoxu, insisting that the port is a “normal commercial activity” and “any distortion of the facts would be invalid”.
“It’s an aid project,” a Chinese analyst told the China Daily. Fu Xiaoqiang – a senior researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations – added: “It is meant to help improve Sri Lanka’s shipping and transportation.”
That could be so. China’s relations with Sri Lanka date back much further than either country’s contacts with the West. The native Sinhalese were trading with the Middle Kingdom as far back as the eighth century, and commerce and maritime innovation flourished between the two for the next 600 years.
But Sri Lanka does seem to have been drawn further into China’s sphere of influence. China is now Colombo’s biggest foreign aid donor, for instance, and its foreign policy has followed a longstanding rule not to meddle in the domestic affairs of other nations.
This has helped Beijing in emerging markets, particularly in Africa. In Sri Lanka’s case, it has meant remaining quiet about the conflict with the Tamil Tigers.
Quiet, but not unhelpful. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, China has sold significant military hardware and ammunition to the Sri Lankan military. Indeed, analysts think that the arms sales have been decisive in ending the stalemate with the Tigers, and helping the government to win the long- running civil war.
Work on the port will not be finished for another 13 years. But there will be local benefits too. The port is being built in the relatively poor home province of the country’s leader, President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Far from the bustle of Colombo, it will serve as his economic legacy to the area, along with a long-awaited international airport. Perhaps the Chinese will build that too.
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