Colombo, January 19 (Daily Express): India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, who was on short visit here on Saturday, has told the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that it is important that India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives review the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) regime, enhance it, and include other regional countries as observers.
The MDA regimen keeps track of vessels in the area. It was lack of cooperation in this area which led to a deep rift between India and Sri Lanka in 2014 when the Indians charged that a Chinese “nuclear” submarine had docked in Colombo without its being made aware of it. The submarine incident was the last straw on the back of India which had been watching with alarm the Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s dalliance with rival China since 2010.
The Presidential Media Division said in a press release on Doval’s talks with the President that both countries expressed an interest in stepping up military to military corporation; cooperation in maritime security and establishing inter-operability between the Indian and Sri Lankan Coast Guards.
Doval brought up the need for inter-operability of the two Coast Guards in order to check smuggling, drug-trafficking, gun-running by Non-State Actors and illegal fishing.
India also pledged assistance to Sri Lanka in acquiring intelligence gathering technology. An USD 50 million credit line to purchase intelligence gathering equipment was reiterated. Establishment of a “Maritime Research Coordinating Centre” was also discussed.
In all probability, Sri Lanka will implement India’s demands because one of the basic tenets of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime is that it must respect and address India’s strategic concerns while throwing open the economy for investments from all parts of the world, including China.
Growing Chinese Activity
India’s concerns, as reflected in Doval’s requests, stem from growing Chinese activity in the South Asian and Indian Ocean region. Apart from protecting the East-West Sea Lane for the sake of uninterrupted oil supplies from West Asia, China also needs to protect the growing number of Chinese nationals and Chinese economic and strategic assets in the Indian Ocean region.
China has port development projects in Gawadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Kyaukphyu in Myanmar and Chittagong in Bangladesh. These are all in India’s backyard. India fears encirclement. Beijing gifted two Type 053 frigates to Bangladesh in 2019, after giving a P 625 vessel to the Sri Lankan navy in June that year.
China’s trade with countries participating in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been expanding and totaled 9.27 trillion yuan (US$ 1.34 trillion) in 2019. It has outpaced the country’s aggregate trade growth by 7.4 percentage points, according to published data.
More than US$ 60 billion in investments have been promised under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), said Zou Zhiwu, Vice Minister of the General Administration of Customs.
According to Russia Today website, China has signed nearly 200 deals for new BRI projects in 167 countries and international organizations, and is eying further expansion.
The construction of a 25-meter deep water port in Kyaukpyu in the Rakhine State of Myanmar should worry India as it adversely affects its dominance in the Bay of Bengal. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Myanmar on January 17 and 18, the two sides agreed to strengthen their Belt and Road Initiative cooperation, and “work hard” to push forward the construction of the Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ), according to a joint statement issued by the two countries on Saturday.
In 2014, the Myanmar government invited bidders from around the world for its plan to set up the Kyaukpyu SEZ, one of the country’s three national SEZs, in an effort to kick-start the Rakhine economy troubled by internal strife between the government forces and the Muslim Rohingyas and other Rakhine groups.
In 2015, a consortium of six companies led by the China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) won the tender for building the Kyaukpyu SEZ. Three years later, after marathon negotiations, the CITIC-led consortium struck a framework agreement with Myanmar on the project, Xinhua reported.
Port development is divided into four phases, according to the CITIC Group, and the first stage involves the construction of two berths with a total investment of US$ 1.3 billion. The construction of the port will commence after completing economic and social impact assessments.
The CITIC consortium told Xinhua that the port and the industrial park, combined, will create more than 100,000 jobs each year for local residents and create tax revenues of US$ 15 billion during the initial franchise period of 50 years.
India’s Counter Measures
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has been making efforts to cultivate ties with its Asian neighbors as part of its “Look East” policy. It is hoping to work with Japan on the Eastern container terminal in Colombo port and is to support the development of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project that is designed to connect Kolkata port with Sittwe port in Rakhine in Myanmar.
India is concerned about China’ maritime surveillance capability in the Indian Ocean. This is the reason why the Establishment of a “Maritime Research Coordinating Centre” was discussed by Doval in his meeting with Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It is known that there is a China-Sri Lanka Joint Center for Research and Education in ocean sciences in Ruhuna University in South Sri Lanka. India perhaps wants a similar center with its participation.
Wang Yi’s Visit
The immediate reason for Doval’s rushing to Colombo could be the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on January 14 which had taken place in the backdrop of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s statements against the 2017 deal with China on the Hambantota port.
Gotabaya not only had reservations about the granting of the port on a 99 year lease but also the security aspects. He was not sure if the security of the port is entirely in the hands of the Sri Lankan Navy as is the case with other ports in Sri Lanka. He wanted some two or three clauses on security added to the existing agreement.
However, later, he said that while the commercial part of the 2017 deal cannot be changed, the security aspect has to reworked as per Sri Lanka’s requirements because border control is Lanka’s sovereign right.
Wang Yi’ special envoy who immediately made a dash to Sri Lanka to get clarifications on the President’s remark concurred with him and added that China would like to invest more in Sri Lanka. Wang Yi who came later, further cemented the relationship by unequivocally declaring that China will not allow “outsiders” to meddle in Lanka’s internal affairs and promised to help it in international forums. This in effect means that China will protect Sri Lanka in its battles on war crimes allegations at the UN Human Rights Council’s 43 rd.session in Geneva between February and March this year.
Plight Of Small Countries
The great strategic interest shown in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal by big powers like China, India and the US is worrying their peoples and governments. Having gone through violent internal turmoil for years and just emerging from chromic instability, there is an understandable yearning among them to steer clear of big power rivalries and follow a neutral policy of equidistance.
But such neutrality is impractical. What they do is to walk the tight rope and play one big power against another to get the maximum benefits from the rivalries.