Sri Lanka: Is Indian concerns on Chinese naval presence justified?

china-lanka-navyThree Chinese naval vessels calling on Sri Lankan ports in over six months – two of them submarines that can only be offensive platforms – and sections of the Indian strategic community is disturbed once again. They are even more concerned about Colombo’s purported nonchalance to India’s concerns, expressed to visiting Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of the nation’s President who was reportedly called in mainly for the purpose a couple of weeks ago.

It’s not known if Sri Lanka had informed India about the Chinese naval visits, or if it is required by security protocols or precedents between the two. If not, did Sri Lanka make any effort at concealing/downplaying the Chinese naval visits from India or the rest of the world? Three, does India have reasons to believe that anything secretive might have happened with or on board these vessels that should be of concern, now or later?

If the answers to these questions are convincing, there is no reason for the Indian strategic community to keep talking about the ‘China bogey’ all the time, as if they could not afford to miss any opportunity to flag it – real and imaginary. India is far away and far ahead from 1962, and they can trust the Indian security apparatus (of which most of them were a part until the day before) to do what is needed under the circumstances. The same may go with truant neighbours, if any.

‘Cautious optimism’ has been the key to India’s military preparedness in dealings, whether with China or Pakistan. Barring the singular fiasco, which is often attributed to mis-judgment and mis-communication on the Indian side, even the 1962 debacle could have been averted in military terms. Or, at least that is what many in the Indian strategic community have come to believe – talk and write about.

If India were to feel threatened by every Chinese movement – political, diplomatic, economic or military, whether land or sea – no Indian can sleep in peace, now or ever. The situation has not reached remotely there. If nothing else, for every sleepless night that Indians might end up having, there will be another – and possibly the same – that every Chinese too would be experiencing, if provoked.

‘String of Pearls’ and after

The ‘China bogey’ in India got a fresh lease of life with the ‘String of Pearls’ theory floated in the US. The String did not leave out even Africa as a ‘neighbour’ of sorts for India, which again it claimed China could choke. If that were so, China could choke the whole of Indian Ocean sea-lanes, and no nations or their trade and naval vessels could escape it. Or, they would have had to fight it out together or separately against China. India would not be the lone and targeted victim.

There can be no denying China’s increased economic engagement with India’s immediate neighbours, no exception. So are India’s new-found western friends and allies, who too have apprehensions about China’s ‘economic expansionism’ in India’s neighbourhood. Like China, they too have been making tentative economic and military approaches in and to these countries – but as much behind the back of India. India’s strategic community is either ignorant or silent about them.

India too is ‘falling prey’ to such Chinese ‘economic expansionism’. Among other infrastructure projects in India, China, for instance, is said to be undertaking a feasibility study for the Rs 2.25-lakh crore ‘bullet train’ project between capital Delhi and the historically-important southern port-city of Chennai, cutting across much of the Indian land-mass. Other Chinese investments and imports too are in the pipeline.

India is thus in no position to tell the neighbours not to take help from China. Why, none of the ‘western adversaries of China’ (?) can say so, to or of any other nation. China’s economic and fiscal dominance in the global theatre is complete. Despite predictions and publicised reports, there is nothing to suggest that it’s going to happen the day after, if not tomorrow.

National self-interest

India’s neighbours will possibly take a much longer time to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of development and growth, and consequent levels of political stability, without massive external aid in whatever form. In the foreseeable future, India, for instance, is not going to be anywhere near the kind of economic prosperity required to willingly replace China in that department – at least in this part of the world, even limiting India’s needs and ambitions for once.

Where India’s friends are involved with India’s neighbours, they too are not promoting India’s cause – or, a ‘collective cause’ – in the Indian neighbourhood. They have their ‘supreme national self-interest’ in making those investments – political, diplomatic or defence – and they cannot be blamed for it. China has its own priorities, and it’s no different from those of other nations investing in the Indian neighbourhood.

There is a singular and very significant difference between China and other third-nation investors in India’s neighbourhood, yes. It is about the two nations sharing 3408 km of disputed border, only a little above the 3323 km border with Pakistan – but much less than the 4097 km border with a much smaller neighbour in Bangladesh. But unlike in the case of Bangladesh, whose creation however India has assisted militarily, the China border was by itself at the centre of a military conflict over half a century ago. The embers refuse to die down, and there are enough episodes, peoples and nations around to stoke them from time to time, whatever the reason. The competitive media, their commissioned analysts or their ill-informed, google-educated talk-show hosts and guests, as the case may be, cannot be left out, either.

Time of China’s choosing

It’s not only about Sri Lanka — or Maldives — or any of the other Indian Ocean neighbours. Even India’s land neighbours (with no exception) are not free from ‘Chinese influence’. The new Afghan President Ashrat Ghani chose China as his first overseas destination. Predecessor Hamid Karzai had visited India as his first overseas post after assuming office.

Keeping Pakistan aside, Indian concerns about the excessive Chinese economic presence and influence in the immediate South Asian neighbourhood relates possibly to the kind of political influence that China could bring to bear on those nations at a time and occasion of its choosing. In the ‘Cold War’ era, the US was India’s concern in the South Asian neighbourhood – only the player, not the causes for those concerns have changed.

It does not mean that the US has now taken India into confidence on all of its doings and un-doings in South Asia. Nor has Russia, which professes continued respect and friendship – bordering on affection – for India. It is true of the UK, the EU, Japan and every other friend of India who have dealings with and in India’s neighbourhood. India does not have to get exceptionally worked up over China.

Uniquely placed

On the flip-side and flowing from the US-China parallel during and after the ‘Cold War’, India too needs to re-visit its neighbourhood strategy, to think for and like them, if it has to have them on their side, now and ever. India is uniquely placed as an existing regional power and emerging super-power (whenever that happens). It has neighbours who are much smaller in every which way, and whose only strength is their ‘sovereignty’ to fall back upon.

The neighbours’ awe for India and its achievements (starting with ‘unity in diversity’) is matched only by their suspicions of India, and their unilateral and unsubstantiated perception of India’s designs for/on them. They see India as much as a ‘big brother’ as they look up to it as an ‘elder brother’. The dividing line is thin and is inter-changeable without effort.

The average Indian’s inconsistency – even more than India’s inconsistency, if any — in approaching and dealing with the neighbours creates problems that are easy to create, difficult to erase. The reverse is equally true, but that’s where the big-small syndrome plays itself out. In a way, India needs the neighbours as much – or even much more – than they need India. India needs to win over their confidence as much as they too have to do.

It’s a two-way street. Truth be told bluntly, just because India has concerns, flowing from third-nation interventionist agendas (as Indians see them), the neighbours are only going to exploit them. It’s in the nature of international relations, more so in the case of big-small bilateral equations of the kind. Indian nonchalance in the matter at least up to a point could change it, if there is anything that could do it. Hyper-ventilated over-reaction do the reverse.

Learning from Cold War era

India is yet to learn from the ‘Cold War’ era, where it took its strategic decisions independent of its neighbours, and seldom took them into confidence – but expected them to leave it all to India. Post-Cold War, the sources of Indian concerns have changed, so have its friends and partners from outside the South Asian region. Yet, there is nothing to suggest that it has taken to winning over neighbours as ‘strategic friends and partners’ in the first instance, before going elsewhere.

These are also nations, which either out of history or habit or purely domestic political competition and compulsions, end up seeing India as the only possible source of external threat, if at all there is any – in military terms. In political terms, some of them had the erstwhile Soviet Union in their sight. Now, some of them feel equally bothered by the West, more in political terms and their ideology-driven approaches.

For India, it was the US during the ‘Cold War’ years or China that was/is the cause of concern. In context, neither has the perceptions of the neighbours changed wholly for them to view the world through the Indian prism, nor has India’s approach in taking them on to its side, wholly and whole-heartedly. In a way, they continue to be dead-locked, with none to acknowledge it as such.

‘Strategic confidence’

In the matter of Chinese naval vessels, including submarines, calling on Sri Lankan ports, for instance, they are not the only ones to do so in the past so many years. During the long years and decades of Sri Lanka’s ‘ethnic wars’, the LTTE’s ‘Sea Tigers’ effectively ensured that no friendly/logistic-support visits of the kind could happen.

Post-war, since 2010, some 250 naval vessels from across a wide spectrum of nations have berthed at Sri Lankan ports. If Indians have to suspect Sri Lanka in the matter of Chinese naval vessels calling at its ports, then they would have to suspect a host of other nations from all corners of the world, not all of them being excessively friendly towards India. It is another matter that Indian naval vessels are included in this – though they stand out on a totally different equation altogether.

It’s in this background the current Chinese naval vessels’ calling on at Sri Lankan ports need to be looked at – without India lowering its guard at any time and yet working with Sri Lanka and other neighbours to build and/or improve bilateral/multilateral regional/sub-regional strategic openness and confidence. Still, it would only be a beginning but a constructive beginning at that!

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

Courtesy: ORF