China’s growing influence in its near abroad has stirred concern among its neighbours, none more so than India.
New Delhi regards Beijing’s expansion — through military and commercial agreements alike — warily, particularly China’s recent agreement on a 99-year lease to operate a strategically located deep-water port at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, a small island nation just south of the Indian mainland.
Sri Lanka started building the Hambantota port about five years ago, relying on heavy Chinese investment but planning to operate the facility itself.
Ambitions for the port have foundered, however, and Colombo struck a billion-dollar deal with Beijing for a 70% stake in a joint venture with Sri Lanka’s port authority. The lease also gives China control over 15,000 acres of land near the port for development of an industrial zone.
China’s latest investment extends the country’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which includes overland and maritime routes as well as economic and industrial agreements linking China to 68 countries constituting about 60% of the world’s population and around one-third of global GDP. It will also go toward debt relief for Sri Lanka, which owes China $US8 billion, more than 12% of the country’s $US65 billion outstanding debt.
But the Hambantota deal has been met with concern both inside and outside Sri Lanka.
At home, Sri Lankans — labour unions and other activists in particular — continue to protest what is seen as growing Chinese influence in their country.
Those opposed to the deal have called the Hambantota project a “Chinese colony” — an early January protest at an event marking the start of construction at the port ended with 21 people injured and 52 arrested. The opposition parliamentary coalition have also protested the deal. Colombo has revised the deal, splitting control of port operations, but worry persists.
“The concern is not about the investment coming in,” Nasal Rajapaksa, an opposition parliament member and son of the former president (who oversaw much of the growth of Sri Lanka’s debts to China), told Al Jazeera at the end of July. “I’m saying the Sri Lankan government should have negotiated a better deal for Sri Lanka.”
India has also objected, seeing the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka as part of Beijing’s effort to expand into the Indian Ocean, of a piece with Chinese-run and financed facilities in places like, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Djibouti.
The Hambantota port deal “ties into what India has said about the Belt and Road initiative, that many of these ventures are not being entered into by China by looking at their financial liability,” K.C. Singh, former secretary at the Indian ministry of external affairs, told Al Jazeera.
Colombo has also made agreements with New Delhi to mollify the latter’s concern about Hambantota, including the condition that no Chinese military vessel come to the port without permission.
But, Singh said, “this is going to be a standing example for the other countries to watch, because China is not Father Christmas, handing out dollar bills. They want return on the money, and they want the money to come within a certain, certified period.”
“Is it a model then for future extension of the Chinese strategic footprint? When … countries can’t return the money, then you grab territory?” Singh said. “So that will be something that India will be concerned about, and I’m sure it will be raised in Colombo.”
Einar Tangen, an Al Jazeera political analyst and banker who advises the Chinese government, said if India — which boycotted a Chinese meeting on the One Belt, One Road initiative earlier this year — has concerns about China’s activities it should “come to the table.”
“We should separate the passive-aggressive ideas about China’s expansions and concentrate more on what exactly the world needs,” Tangen said. “Isn’t it about time that leaders sat down and tried to work” out disputes.
One Belt, One Road
US interest in Asia, under the guise of President Barack Obama’s “Asia pivot,” has receded in some places as Chinese interest has grown.
Beijing’s deal-making in Myanmar, for example, comes as President Donald Trump has shown little interest in guiding that country out of war.
The Trump administration is also considering a tougher stance toward Pakistan, even as China has signed $US55 billion in deals with the South Asian country, locking the two into what looks to be a long-term relationship.
Heavy Chinese investment in Gwadar, an Pakistani port on the Indian Ocean being run and expanded by a Chinese company, stirs concerns similar to those about Hambantota.
China has tried to avoid the appearance of military-oriented deal-making with the One Belt, One Road initiative — Beijing refers to the port facility recently opened in Djibouti as a “logistics facility” — emphasising instead economic and infrastructure deals, though such deals still bind the countries involved to Beijing closely.
“The Chinese are winning the perceptions game, whatever the reality. That then leads to political outcomes, because people see the inevitability of China’s rise and China’s power,” Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations told The Wall Street Journal.
If China’s projects in Sri Lanka are peaceful and benefit the latter country, “sure, it’s very good,” said Singh, the former Indian diplomat. “But at the moment, that’s not the impression that India has. We find that China is jostling for strategic space.”
The US, India, and Japan — all of whom took part in the massive Malabar 2017 naval exercise in the Indian Ocean this summer — have all reportedly objected to the potential Chinese military activities at Hambantota, and New Delhi condemned the docking of a Chinese submarine at Colombo in 2014.
China’s subs, and its naval activity in the Indian Ocean in general, are a particular concern for India.
The conflict ‘will not be limited’
Protracted tensions in the Himalayas, where Indian and Chinese forces have squared off in a border dispute since mid-summer, offer an example of how the Indian Ocean could become ground zero for any Sino-Indian conflict.
“Certainly, it will be detrimental for both, but if Beijing escalates [the conflict], it will not be limited. Perhaps, it may extend to the maritime domain as well,” Dr. Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, told the South China Morning Post.
Indian military expansion on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands also give it a strategically valuable position in relation to the Malacca Straits, a choke point through which China gets over 80% of its oil imports.
“Since 2010, India has also upgraded two airstrips on the [Andaman and Nicobar] islands to serve fighters and reconnaissance aircraft,” Naval expert Li Jie, who is based in Beijing, told the Post. “All these moves pave the way for India to be able to blockade Chinese military and commercial ships from entering the Indian Ocean in the event of a naval conflict between the two countries.”