Bangalore, October 27: The visiting Sri Lankan Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Jayantha Perera perfectly played to the gallery on Monday. Ruling out any Chinese military presence in the island nation, he said, "India's security is as our security."
He wanted India to believe that the co-operation between China and Sri Lanka are purely commercial in nature. His comments come after concerns expressed in various quarters over the increasing presence of the Chinese military in Sri Lanka.
Last month, the People's Liberation Army-Navy's (PLA-N) Type-039 Song Class submarine had docked in Colombo, signalling China's reach in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
While Vice Admiral Perera claimed that the submarine was not a nuclear one, experts in India feel that its visit has several implications.
Subs can fish in troubled waters in peace and war
Cdr (Retd) Roy Francis feels that the first publicised foray of a Chinese submarine into Indian back yard, though not surprising for the strategic community, is a portend for future tidings.
"The Chinese incursions on land borders are viewed with concern in the media and suitably attended to, their activity far out in the oceans, are no less serious. Warships are ambassadors of their countries in foreign ports in peace time. Chinese men of war have called at Indian ports, when Indian Navy played gracious hosts to them. However, submarines, because of the medium in which they operate, can fish in troubled waters in peace and war," says Cdr (Retd) Roy, who is the former Media Communication and Public Relations Officer of Indian Navy at Kochi.
He suspected that the submarine's presence gives credence to the ‘String of Pearls' theory according to which, China is endeavouring to encircle India with a series of ports around Asia.
"Chinese interests in the port of Gwadar in Pakistan and other ports which it help build in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are not for altruistic reasons alone. The fact that the Chinese President visited the relatively small neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka and Maldives prior to his much-hyped Indian visit would not have gone unnoticed by people in the know.
Hasn't Sri Lanka realised the full import of hosting a Chinese submarine and the possible sensitivities of India on the issue? Isn't it time that India find ways and means to tell its neighbours to stop playing the China card?" asks Cdr (Retd) Roy.
He said that submarines are seldom the glamorous face of any Navy during peace time. "They are the real business end of the any Navy which means business. China has more than 50 submarines in its sub-sea inventory and just one aircraft carrier. It is high time India goes all out to augment its sub-surface offensive capabilities. Submarines are highly effective in war and less-than-war-like-situations, especially when one has to signal intent," says Cdr (Retd) Roy Francis, a submariner himself, during his service days.
India must wait and watch
According to Avinash Godbole, Research Assistant with Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), China considers Sri Lanka as strategically important country in periphery for many reasons.
"First as the last stop in its Maritime Silk Road (MSR) strategy in Asia and second as a fuelling station for its defence ships transiting the region. These ships are active in anti-piracy operations where China wants to play a greater role in the future. We have to watch for the frequency of such visits, duration of the stay and whether it has implications like snooping of Indian operations in the Indian Ocean region," says Avinash, an expert on Chinese foreign policy and India-China relations.
He said China has said in the past that its competition was with the US with its ‘Malacca Dilemma' still continuing. "India has a maritime cooperation dialogue with Sri Lanka and Maldives and we should seek to use it to safeguard our interests. Also India should raise this issue in the India-China maritime cooperation dialogue that will start sometime in the future," feels Avinash.
Naval ships at Saint Denis Port
In an unrelated development, the Navy said that Indian Naval Ships Mumbai, Talwar, Teg and Deepak under the Command of Rear Admiral R Hari Kumar, Flag Officer Commanding the Western Fleet, are on a two-month long Overseas Deployment to East Africa and the South Indian Ocean region.
"Three of the four ships, INS Mumbai, INS Talwar and INS Deepak have arrived at Saint Denis Port of the Reunion Island in France on Monday towards bolstering bilateral ties and reinforcing cooperation in maritime security between India and France," Naval Spokesperson Capt D K Sharma, said.
(The writer is a senior aerospace and defence journalist in India. He is a Consulting Editor with OneIndia. He tweets @writetake)