On October 31, 2014, a Chinese submarine and a warship arrived at the Colombo Port. As the calm ocean waters surrounding the port were disturbed by the arrival of the two military vessels, the visits sent shockwaves across India’s security establishment and made even the Americans feel that their Pivot-to-Asia policy had been severely undermined.
Adding to their suspicions was the secrecy surrounding the visits of the two vessels – submarine Changzheng-2 and warship Chang Xing Dao. This was more than they needed as evidence to prove their suspicion that Sri Lanka had become a part of China’s security setup in the Indian Ocean. For, Changzheng-2 was the second Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo in as many months. If Sri Lanka had managed to address the concerns of India and the United States over the first Chinese submarine’s visit in September 2014, by saying it was a security measure connected to China’s President Xi Jinping’s visit to Sri Lanka, this time around no explanation could allay their fears.
There was another reason for India’s trepidation: the submarine was docked not in the section designed for military vessels but in a terminal designed and operated by the Chinese.
“This is nothing unusual. Since 2010, 230 warships have called at Colombo port from various countries on goodwill visits and for refuelling and crew refreshment,” Sri Lanka’s then Navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya said by way of explanation though India and the United States appeared far from being convinced.
Coming to Sri Lanka’s rescue, China’s Defence Ministry said, “It is an international common practice for navy submarine to stop for refuelling and crew refreshment at an overseas port.”
But none of these statements could calm the nerves of the Indians who by then had started to work closely with US security experts to counter what they perceived as a growing security threat from China.
India’s Scorpene Class Submarine ‘Kalivari’ takes part in its maiden sea trials off the coast of Mumbai on May 1, 2016. Pic AFP/ INDIAN NAVY
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated at the January 2015 presidential election, rumors to the effect that foreign forces which were unhappy over Sri Lanka’s Chinese connection were behind the regime change were not confined to just whispers alone.
Probably aware of the regime change capabilities of big powers, the new government in Sri Lanka went overboard in its efforts to assuage the fears of India and the United States. The new government in Colombo downgraded ties with China from special to normal. But a year into office, the Government learned the hard way that it had made a costly mistake by antagonising China, because the much anticipated investments or aid did not flow in to salvage the economy from the doldrums. Now it is once again a case of Sri Lanka going to China for economic assistance and once again we are arousing the suspicions of those powers which are uncomfortable with China’s economic rise and assertive diplomacy with militaristic undertones.
With almost all Chinese projects in Sri Lanka, including the controversial Port City, up and running, Sri Lanka’s renewed love affair with China comes not without its geopolitical consequences. Against the backdrop of claims that China’s blue water navy was seen closer to what India considers as areas under its watch in the Indian Ocean, India and the United States have, in recent months, increased the frequency of their contacts to discuss the threat of China. India, it is said, is pushing for Indo-US cooperation to help each other track submarines in the Indian Ocean.
Last month, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visited New Delhi with the intention of making India a strategic partner of the United States. Significantly, one of the places Carter visited while in India last month was India’s Eastern Naval Command, which is home to the bulk of India’s advanced ships, submarines and an aircraft carrier.
During Carter’s visit, the two sides agreed in principle on a deal to allow each nation’s militaries to use the other’s naval, land, and air bases to resupply and pre-position hardware. The agreement appears to signal a major shift in India’s policy of not embracing any major power as a strategic partner.
Though non-alignment is long defunct, India has stuck to the middle path foreign policy, continuing to give leadership to developing nations at world forums. But now under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is taking a major step to open up its military bases to the United States in exchange for access to weapons technology to help it narrow the gap with China.
One of the areas, in which the two countries are working together, is anti-submarine warfare techniques, given China’s submarine and warship deployment in the Indian Ocean.
India has not tolerated the presence of any power in the South Asian part of the ocean. But now the presence of China’s submarines in areas close to India’s territorial waters has set off security alarms in New Delhi.
Indian naval officials say Chinese submarines have been sighted on an average four times every three months. Some are seen near India’s Andaman Islands and Nicobar islands which lie near the Malacca Straits, the entry to the South China Sea through which more than 80 percent of China’s fuel supplies pass.
Reuters quoted an Indian naval source as saying this week that the focus of the next set of joint exercises to take place in the northern Philippine Sea next month would be on anti-submarine warfare. The joint exercises are set to bring together India, the United States, Japan, the Philippines and other nations that see China as a military threat.
India is also preparing to launch its first home-made nuclear submarine in the coming weeks. Christened Arihant, meaning the killer of all enemies, the submarine last month successfully carried out ballistic missile tests in the Bay of Bengal. Also on trial this week was ‘Kalvari’ (Tiger Shark), a Scorpene Class Indian Submarine, designed by French naval defence company DCNS and being built in Mumbai.
In another development, the US has increased submarine and surveillance activity in the Indian Ocean region.
Collin Koh, a submarine expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, says, “We will see the Indian Ocean grow in importance, particularly around traditional chokeholds, such as the approaches to the Malacca Straits and the Nicobar islands, so an improved US relationship with the major submarine player in the area, India, is very significant.”
As these developments threaten to turn the Indian Ocean, through which two thirds of the world’s trade move, into a theatre of a submarine war, Sri Lanka cannot afford to turn a blind eye. Sri Lanka played a peacemaker role in the Sino-India conflict of 1962. Can it play a similar role once again?
In the 1970s, Sri Lanka spearheaded a global campaign to get the United Nations to declare the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. Since Sri Lanka’s interests will be best served only if it maintains friendship with all, can it launch a similar campaign now? This should be Sri Lanka’s focus at next month’s Shangri-La defence dialogue in Singapore. China, India, Japan, the United States and other stakeholders will be there.