COLOMBO: Concerned about Sri Lanka’s lurch towards the US and the West, China is sending its Defence Minister Gen.Chang Wanquan to Colombo for a there-day trip beginning on Sunday.
The hurriedly planned visit will be part of a tour of some countries in the region (not in the Indian subcontinent). Gen.Chang Wanquan will meet all the top government leaders and also interact with the officers of the Defense Staff College.
While the precise purpose of the visit to Sri Lanka is not public yet, the speculation is that Beijing may want to stem Sri Lanka’s Westward lurch by re-establishing military ties with Colombo - a gap yet to be
filled by the West.
China can use its long history of strong ties with Sri Lanka, established during the war against the Tamil Tigers, when the West and India had refused to provide military assistance on human rights issues while China and its ally, Pakistan, obliged. China is reported to have supplied US $1 billion worth of weapons and military equipment during the war years. In fact, the thirty year-war against the Tamil separatists could not have been won without the arms and ammunition generously supplied by China and Pakistan.
Since last year, Sri Lanka has been wanting to buy new fighter-bombers to replace its ageing fleet and had gone quite far in trying to get 12 JF-17s made in Pakistan in collaboration with China. But India
intervened to stem the deal and offered the India-made Tejas as an alternative. Tejas was however, still in the trial stage at that time. Gen.Chang could now make an attractive offer to fill the void.
Sri Lanka has expressed an interest in buying transport aircraft from China. During a visit to China, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that Chinese transport aircraft are good.
Having realized the importance of the navy during the 2006-2009 Eelam War IV, when it had to tackle the sea-faring terrorist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka has been wanting to develop its naval arm. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has publicly said that he wants Sri Lanka to have a Blue Water navy and take on international responsibilities in far flung areas to ensure
international maritime security.
Having had rich experience of successfully meeting the challenges posed by the intrepid Sea Wing of the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka has a lot to share with other countries which are facing sea borne terrorists now.
The previous government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa had assisted a private firm to float a company to participate in anti-piracy operations in the Western Indian Ocean. The company had a
ship and Sea Marshals for hire. Last year, China announced that it is giving Yuan 120 million (US$ 17 million) to enable Sri Lanka to buy an Offshore Petrol Vessel. However it is learnt that negotiations on this have not been concluded. During the Defence Minister’s visit, China could also offer other arms to Sri Lanka to keep its forces up to date.
Row Over Hambantota
While wanting to keep Sri Lanka within its fold is the larger objective, Beijing’s immediate concern is not to lose control over the deep water port at Hambantota, which China wants to be a part of its ambitious One Road One Belt (OBOR) project of global dimensions.
One of the main aims of the OBOR is ensuring international maritime security as per China’s requirements. Beijing is therefore keen on acquiring a stake in the deep water port in Hambantota, and giving Colombo the wherewithal in terms of naval and air power to play a supportive role in policing the Indian Ocean.
But the Wickremesinghe government’s bid to give the state-owned Chinese company, China Merchant Holding Company, 80% stake for 99 years in the joint venture company to be formed to run the port, has run into a political storm in Sri Lanka and set off alarm bells in the capitals of the West and New Delhi too.
Two Sri Lankan public men have filed cases against the “Framework Agreement” giving 80 % stake to the Chinese. The Supreme Court has posted the cases for hearing on April 7.
The government is now trying to bring down the Chinese stake to 60%, but it is not clear if the Chinese will agree to it.
The other issue is the Sri Lankan government’s express intention to keep to itself the right to decide what kind of military activity to be allowed to take place in the port. The West and India want Colombo
to have full control over the port, especially the security aspect of it.
It is said that the Hambantota issue will be high on the agenda of Gen.Chang Wanquan when he talks to the Sri Lankan leaders.