By P.K.Balachandran/South Asian Monitor
Dr. Satoru Nagao, a Japanese expert on maritime security who is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, says that Sri Lanka should acquire the Lockheed P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft to meet a possible threat from Chinese submarines. He told this correspondent in an email interview, that Sri Lanka should be wary of China’s presence in the Hambantota harbor.
“Beijing’s assurance about maintaining the harbor’s civilian character has to be taken with a pinch of salt, given its violation of internationally laid down rules in the South China Sea,” he said.
Sri Lanka has leased out the US$1.2 billion Hambantota harbor in south Sri Lanka to the Chinese government-owned China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) for 99 years. But one of the conditions is that the port will be used only for civilian and commercial purposes. The security of the harbor is to be with the Sri Lankan Navy. The SLN has already moved its Southern Command HQ to the port from Galle.
Recently, Sri Lankan Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe stated that the time has come for the Sri Lankan Navy to acquire anti-submarine capability given the mounting big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean. He also said that Sri Lanka is planning to go for Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) to counter the threat.
But Dr. Nago said that the best option would not be OPVs but Lockheed P-3C Orion reconnaissance aircraft.
Why P-3C aircraft?
“Sri Lanka needs to identify and warn Chinese naval vessels which approach Hambantota port before they reach the port. And that can be done quickly and effectively only by aircraft,” he said.
Giving the advantage of the P-3C Dr.Nagao said: “The P-3C is an US developed equipment which the Australians also use. India also uses P-8 which is part of the family of P-3. Thus, the capability of the P-3 to be an anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft is proven.”
“Japan is planning to export or donate used P-3C anti-submarine patrol planes to Sri Lanka as a part of capacity building measures under Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy program,” he added.
South China Sea A Pointer
Appealing to Sri Lankans to be vigilant about China’s intentions, Dr.Nagao referred to its conduct in the South China Sea.
“Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s claim to ownership of 90% of the South China Sea in 2016, China is ignoring the verdict and building three airports on seven artificial islands in the South China Sea. Despite China’s declaring that these facilities are not for military purposes, it deployed missiles on these islands.”
“Therefore, the more Sri Lanka accepts China’s investments, the more vigilant Sri Lanka should be about maintaining its independence from China’s machinations,” the Japanese expert said.
Great Power Rivalry
Explaining why the Lankan Prime Minister spoke about the possibility of a submarine threat to Sri Lanka, Dr. Nagao said that to answer the question one needs to know the importance of Sri Lanka’s geographic location and its vulnerability to outside interference.
“We need to know Sri Lanka’s role in the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Sri Lanka is located at the center of the North Indian Ocean. There are not many islands in the Southern part of the ocean. Therefore, to go to any side of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, whether it is Australia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Middle East, East Africa or the other island countries in the Indian Ocean, vessels have to pass by Sri Lanka. As a result, vital sea lines of communication between Middle East or Africa to Asia have run alongside Sri Lanka historically,” he said.
“Its location has affected the history of Sri Lanka. It was because of its location that Portugal, the Netherlands, and the British Empire colonized the island. It was for the same reason that the Chinese Admiral Zheng He came to Sri Lanka en route to Africa.”
“During World War I, Japanese and Australian naval vessels escorted convoys passing between Sri Lanka and Australia. In World War II, a Japanese aircraft carrier battle group attacked British naval warships including aircraft carriers around Sri Lanka to prevent the approach of British naval fleets to attack Japan’s interests in the Pacific,” Dr. Nagao said.
India too is vulnerable and its actions indicate that, the Japanese expert said.
“One reason why India dispatched its Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was because of the location of Sri Lanka. At that time, India feared the possibility that the US might use Sri Lanka as a naval base,” he recalled.
Dr. Nagao also pointed out to anti-piracy commandoes operating off the coast of Somalia using Sri Lanka to get on and off their vessels because of the island’s convenient location.
Sri Lanka’s Maritime Security personnel have had their base in Galle.
“These historical facts indicate Sri Lanka’s potential to become a theater of rivalry between maritime powers,” the Japanese scholar said.
Coming to the China factor, Dr. Nago said: “China has invested heavily in Sri Lanka because of the country’s location. China has invested in the Hambantota and Columbo port projects. On the surface, these projects are civilian, but it has to be recalled that Chinese submarines had used the Colombo port in 2014.”
Sri Lanka’s government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe since January 8, 2015 had barred the visit of a Chinese submarine in 2017.
“An angry China demanded that Sri Lanka return the money given to build the Hambantota port. In lieu of the money, China got the right to use Hambantota port and it is continuing to build facilities there,” Dr. Nagao claimed.
“Even if China says that its project is a non-military one, Sri Lanka should worry because China’s reputation in the other countries is not so good. If China uses Sri Lanka as a naval base without the permission of Sri Lanka, it will mean that Sri Lanka has lost its independence,” he contended.
China could very well seek to berth its submarines in Hambantota, Dr. Nagao warned and added: “The Sri Lanka armed forces cannot detect these without having anti-submarine capability and that kind of capability will be best enhanced by the acquisition of the tried and tested P-3C aircraft,” he argued.