During Sri Lankan career diplomat and former SAARC Secretary General Nihal Rodrigo’s tenure as Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, when the proposals for the expansion and modernization of the port of Hambantota were being seriously developed , he had informally asked the views of a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) about the speculation of many think tanks in the West about the so-called Chinese "string of pearls" being setup across the Indian Ocean region.
Rodrigo specifically asked whether Hambantota, in the South of Lanka, was going to be part of that string. The theory about China’s security necklace across the Indian Ocean revolves round the sea ports of Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Sitwe in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and, more recently, with much media focus, on Hambantota. These ports have been linked and projected as a necklace of containment round India by many particularly in the Western strategic community.
The deep-water port at Gwadar, Pakistan, represents an early Chinese project in the Arabian Sea. Along with Beijing’s onshore and offshore projects in Myanmar, Gwadar was said to signify a growing Chinese footprint on both the oceanic flanks of peninsula India. Adding to this projected scenario was China’s agreement to build a port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, its development aid to the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong and its reported interest in a strategic anchor in the Maldives. This was seen, by security think-tanks and observers as underscoring an emerging Chinese challenge to India’s traditional position in the Indian Ocean region.
The informal conversation between Rodrigo and the member of the Chinese Communist Party resulted in the Chinese laughing off the speculation. He had stated that the Chinese do not believe in military bases in the Indian Ocean, or for that matter in any part of the world, unlike the Americans who have set up bases across the world. The Chinese believe that this concept causes enormous difficulties whereever US troops have been based, away from their homeland. In terms of budgetary expenses to maintain troops in far flung bases, some statistics had apparently revealed that it costs over half a million US dollars per trooper annually to maintain them in those bases. It has been also reported that the troops in the bases were also under constant psychological stress about being attacked, particularly in Okinawa in Japan where even North Koreans could have fired a missile targeting the base which could also hit local civilian areas.
Facilities in friendly countries for transit
Why China needs the Hambantota port and other ports in the Indian Ocean area was because it benefits from non-military facilities in friendly countries for the vital peaceful transit of its extensive exports and imports. The CPC official had explained that this does not imperil local people. This, he had said, is particularly because of the fact that China does not site any troop bases in any of the Indian Ocean ports. In addition to its oil supplies from the Gulf, China also needs ports of call in the Indian Ocean for its exports especially to Africa.
Not all the export cargo aboard the ships that leave China are meant for one single destination alone. Midway ports are important as break bulk cargo points. The fact that Hambantota has extensive acreage for storage of trans-shipment goods well over and above the limited acreage in Colombo and Galle is also a reason why they sought such facilities in Hambantota. The southern port, a few miles north of the most traversed sea routes in the Indian Ocean was thus, for the Chinese, a vital location for refueling, supply replenishment, break bulk cargo and multi-country transshipment connectivity. It is a fact that even most of Indian exports/imports undergo trans-shipment through Sri Lanka.
Hambantota was being talked of as a possible destination also to break ships when they have to be sold for scrap, a process which is now happening in Chittagong. Sri Lanka has never agreed to this. So, the rationale for China developing the Hambantota port was not without reason. It was for reasons of convenient connectivity, without having to maintain expensive bases with deployment of troop contingents. Hambantota has space where the Chinese could, if needed, have extensive warehouses for storage and break bulk handling which is now becoming more difficult in Singapore and Thailand.
Then come the issues of security. China could use Hambantota as a means of detecting and monitoring Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. There was recently a major issue in the Indian Ocean where an Italian ship had sighted an Indian fishing vessel and shot it, thinking that it carried Somali pirates. Two of the Indian crew members were killed. China does not need to station troops here but its satellites could monitor security threats from pirates. Somali pirates attack ships for looting the cargo as well as for holding crews/passengers to ransom.
Now the western governments are monitoring the eastern coasts of Africa when they were about to sail through the Suez Canal. That passage is relatively more secure now, and the focus is now heavily on the Indian Ocean where there are other dangers of maritime security such as trafficking of people, gun-running, drug-smuggling and related crimes.
BY Ravi Laddwahetty