With Sri Lanka bankrupt and remaining politically unstable, China looks prepared to move in and take advantage of the situation. Earlier in the week a Chinese flagged vessel arrived in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, a facility constructed by Sri Lanka through Chinese loans. The port never lived up to its potential, Colombo defaulted, and China took over port operations in 2017 with a 99-year lease. Since then, there has been growing concern that China will use the infrastructure it helped build in Sri Lanka, and other nations around Asia, for military purposes. In fact, even though the ship that arrived this week is called a scientific research vessel by Beijing, its real purpose is more nefarious. The Yuan Wang 5 is a PLAN ship used to track satellites and missiles. Hambantota is of little use to Sri Lanka, but it can be used for military purposes and Yuan Wang 5’s arrival could signal a change in China’s stance in the aftermath of heightened tensions with the US over Taiwan as well as domestic and economic concerns at home.
There has always been concern in the West over China’s heavy infrastructure investments across the globe since the early 2000s. Airports, seaports, roads and bridges have been built in many countries through Chinese loans. With its foreign debt crisis mounting, China appears set to assume operational control of many facilities. Sri Lanka might only be the beginning. This infrastructure can quite easily be modified to handle military roles in areas of the world where China has never had a military presence before. Aside from Asia, China has also invested heavily in areas of the Middle East, Africa and is making inroads into the South Pacific. The growing presence and influence in places such as the Solomon Islands and Kiribati are especially alarming and hold significant military implications in the Pacific for the United States and may of its allies in the region.
The process might be commencing in Sri Lanka with the arrival of Yuan Wang 5, but in all likelihood we will see considerably more activity in other locations around the world soon.
The Sri Lankan government formally handed over control of the strategic port of Hambantota to China last week. The two nations signed a 99 year lease that gives the Chinese almost-complete control of the port as partial payment on the $8.8 Billion debt Sri Lanka owes to the PRC. China’s presence in Sri Lanka has grown over the last five years and the relationship between the two has flourished as a result. Chinese firms have invested billions of dollars to modernize Sri Lankan port facilities as part of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ drive to expand Chinese market reach.
Concern is expanding across South Asia over China’s investment in Sri Lanka and the level of Chinese involvement in the region overall. Instinctively, New Delhi is alarmed, and suspicious of further Chinese encroachment upon its sphere of influence. The Indians are wary of the growing Chinese challenge to its regional hegemony. Consequently situation in Sri Lanka is hitting close to home both literally and figuratively. The island nation is situated just off India’s southeastern coast and it has been firmly inside of India’s orbit for years. India has invested large sums of treasure, and material to stabilize the island. To address the Chinese presence and influence, India has partnered with Japan to develop Sir Lanka’s eastern coastline, and improve the existing infrastructure there. Beyond India, pushback over Chinese investments and influence has occurred in Nepal, Pakistan, and Myanmar.
India-China relations are still on the mend following the Doklam standoff earlier this year. Both nations appear sincere in their desires to see ties continue improving. However, the potential for an economic proxy war in Sri Lanka is quite real. This situation, along with other rising economic and security challenges in the region threaten to disrupt those relations indefinitely. China is aggressively using its economic power to extend its geopolitical influence far beyond its own borders.
With that influence now butting up against Indian shores, the ball is in New Delhi’s court. India’s response could very well define India-China relations for some time to come.