Having fallen prey to China’s cheque-book diplomacy, Sri Lanka now finds it hard to extract itself from the Red Dragon’s clutches. It is known that the current regime in Colombo had withdrawn permission to the Chinese vessel Yuan Wang 5 to dock in the Hambantota port, though the Rajapakasa government, subsequently ousted by a popular uprising, had given the permission. But under pressure from Beijing the Wickremesinghe government had to fall in line. Clearly, the superior money and military power succeeded in browbeating a small nation now engaged valiantly in repulsing the very real threat of bankruptcy. India, therefore, has no reason to be upset over the docking of the Chinese vessel at Sri Lanka’s southern port, though its concerns about its real objectives in carrying out surveillance activity remain valid.
In the recent past, China has vastly upgraded its naval capabilities and has taken to aggressively patrolling international waters, often dangerously skimming the maritime boundaries of smaller nations in the Indian Ocean region and the South China Sea. Indeed, it has been routine for the Chinese vessels to breach the waters of smaller Southeast Asian nations. The ship Yuan Wang 5 has over 2,000 crew on board and is equipped with the most sophisticated surveillance gadgetry. Indeed, the Hambantota port itself is a symbol of China’s aggressive cheque-book diplomacy which eventually ends up pauperising any nation that China sets out to assist with soft loans. In their previous stint in power, the Rajapakasa brothers had virtually pawned the future of Sri Lanka to the Chinese, allowing the latter to undertake several vanity projects, including the Hambantota port. Unsurprisingly, when Sri Lanka failed to service the huge debt, the Chinese insisted on converting their investment into ownership. The Hambantota port, which never took off commercially, is now fully Chinese-controlled, having been leased out for 99 years in lieu of the money lent to Sri Lanka . The Chinese control of the port next door is a huge security concern for India. For the first time, the Indian strategic community will have to account for the hostile Chinese presence on its southern borders. This is another headache for New Delhi, grappling as it is with the continuing presence and buildup of the Chinese military infrastructure in the Ladakh sector.
Of course, India was not found wanting when Sri Lanka teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. It readily provided substantial financial assistance and also rushed huge quantities of petrol and diesel. Yet, to tide over the crisis requires multilateral institutional lenders where the Chinese vote matters. An IMF loan to restructure the Sri Lankan loan is in the pipeline and without express Chinese support that too could be in jeopardy. It is notable that when Sri Lanka asked the Chinese to delay the visit of the controversial ship to its waters, the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo termed the opposition “senseless”, leaving no-one in doubt that he was hinting at India. There can be little doubt that the aggressive Chinese presence in the region calls for closer cooperation among all democratic nations. India, as the largest democracy in the world, needs to partner other democratic countries to curb the growing Chinese imperialist ambitions.
It is important for a rule-based global order that the Chinese waywardness is halted in its tracks before it becomes unmanageable for the global community. In this respect the appearance of German fighter jets the other day at a US base in Southeast Asia is significant. This is the first time since the Second World War that the German fighter jets have flown over 12,000 kilometres — to show solidarity with the free world in its bid to check an aggressive China. More such effort ought to be welcome; unless, of course, President Xi Jinping is indulging in the show of strength with an eye on getting a third term at the coming National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party later this year. One will have to wait and watch closely the next moves Xi makes in his quest for an unprecedented third presidential term.