Security concerns over Chinese submarines' visit to Colombo

Written by: Col R Hariharan
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Chinese submarines in Colombo: Analysis
India expressed "serious concern to India's national security" to Sri Lanka Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he met the Defence Minister Arun Jaitley and the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval at New Delhi on October 20, 2014 over the docking of a Chinese submarine "Great Wall No.329" in Colombo harbour along with the support ship "Changxing Island" from September 7 to 14, 2014. The wrong identification of the diesel-electric Song class submarine as a nuclear-propelled submarine (SSN) sensationalised the first reports on the incident adding to public concern in India.

Chinese naval ships at terminals where Chine invested $500 million

The two Chinese naval ships were docked in the Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT) in which China has invested $500 million, indicating the possibility of China using its commercial infrastructure assets in Sri Lanka for military purposes.

After the Defence Secretary's visit, Sri Lanka Naval Chief Vice Admiral Jayantha Perera also visited New Delhi at the invitation of his Indian counterpart Admiral RK Dhowan apparently to discuss the same issue. Talking to the media Admiral Perara allayed India's fears on increasing Chinese military presence in the island nation. He said "We will never compromise on national security of India. India's security is our security."

No worry about China's strategic inroads

Admiral Perera also downplayed the worry about China making any strategic inroads into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). "They are coming normally for operational goodwill visit....For your information there is no Chinese military presence....the interest is very commercial," he added.

But even after all this, yet another Chinese submarine - this time a nuclear-propelled one - "Changzheng-2" along with a PLA Navy (PLAN) escort warship "Chang Xing Dao" docked in Colombo on November 6, 2014.

Even as the SSN submarine and its escort ship were waiting to dock in the Colombo harbour on November 4, 2014 Sri Lanka Petroleum Industries Minister Anura P Yapa told the media that the government would not be having talks with India on this issue. This leaves no doubt that Sri Lanka has opted to ignore India's security concerns over PLAN warships using Sri Lanka's port facilities.

Applicability of 1987 India-Sri Lanka Agreement

Media has raised some doubts about the applicability of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) to the use of Sri Lanka port facilities by Chinese warships. Paragrah 2(II) of the letters exchanged between the President of Sri Lanka and the Indian Prime Minister of July 29, 1987 along with the ISLA stipulates: "Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests."

While legal pundits might rake their brain whether foreign war ships on anti-piracy mission in peacetime constitute an operational force or not, Sri Lanka's stand appears to be perfectly legal as Paragraph 2(II) quoted earlier does not form part of the ISLA. Perhaps for this reason India had not objected when Pakistan warships had regularly been berthing in Colombo.

India's security concerns on Chinese submarine's visit to Colombo

India's security concerns are not limited to the PLA N submarine's visit to Colombo only, but to the larger issue of Sri Lanka becoming China strategic ally and partner in China's strategic power projection in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

The reason for this is simple. The security interests of both India and Sri Lanka are closely interwoven and India plays a big role in their close strategic security relations. This applies to Maldives' security also. India's military training facilities are used extensively by Sri Lankan and Maldivian defence forces. The three nations entered into a trilateral agreement in 2013 under which the Indian Navy and Coast Guard patrol to protect the Extended Economic Zones (EEZ) of India and the two island neighbours.

President Rajapaksa cautious in handling India's concerns

In keeping with the spirit of close relationship, usually President Rajapaksa is cautious in handling critical concerns of India. Accustomed to the laid back style of Manmohan Singh government, Rajapaksa is probably not very comfortable with Modi's assertive leadership posture. In spite of this, what has made Rajapaksa to drop his caution and ignore India security concerns, to allow Chinese submarines to use the facilities of Sri Lankan ports?

Beginning of Sri Lanka's participation in Maritime Silk Route

Is it a forerunner of Sri Lanka's participation in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route (MSR) promoted by President Xi Jinping? Does the cooperation under MSR involve extending all the facilities to Chinese war ships transiting IOR on a mission?

Or is it part of the bilateral "strategic cooperation partnership" agreement of 2013 that was substantially expanded after President Xi Jinping's visit to Colombo in September 2014?

Hambantota port and the expansion of the Colombo harbour are important infrastructure assets created with Chinese-funding and expertise. Are there any secret clauses in their project agreements to extend all facilities in these ports to Chinese warships?

These are some of the issues Indian strategy planners and the government would be debating in the coming months.

Rajapaksa eyeing Chinese assistance?

But President Rajapaksa's compulsions to concede to China's demands might be more mundane and down to earth. They could be related to Rajapaksa desire to garner China's financial assistance and loans to service Sri Lanka's debt repayment as well as indulge in some populist schemes to woo voters when he contests the presidential elections for a third time in January 2015.

China has already emerged as the biggest lender to Sri Lanka government with loans to the tune of $ 5 billion. This has helped Rajapaksa to implement most of his ambitious but low yielding infrastructure projects including roads, railways, international airports and power projects. Sri Lanka-China trade is rapidly expanding.

Sri Lanka is poised to sign a Free Trade Agreement with China in 2015 to balance Sri Lanka's lopsided trade equation. Sri Lanka ports stand to gain from increased maritime traffic when China fully implements the MSR. And last but not least China has cash in the kitty. So Rajapaksa would probably like to keep the Chinese in good humour to benefit from China's ambitious mission to expand into South Asia.

India and Sri Lanka need each other

Rajapaksa also knows that neither Sri Lanka nor India can wish away each other's umbilical links bound by geo-strategy, history and culture just because Sri Lanka allowed China to enter their strategic space.

Even though China has been furthering its strategic interests in Sri Lanka for a decade now, it says it respects Indian interests in Sri Lanka as well as IOR. China has also made clear that it was not looking for bases in IOR. Last December, China's Ministry of National Defence had informed Indian military attaches two months in advance about the deployment of a PLA N SSN attack submarine in IOR to show "respect for India" as per Indian media report.

China's caution was evident in reporting on the September 15 incident also. Chinese media reports on the submarine's presence in Colombo merely reproduced Sri Lankan media reports.

However, Chinese media prominently carried the Ministry of National Defence Geng Yansheng's denial that docking of a submarine in Colombo was a sign of China's power projection in the IOR. At a regular press conference on September 25, he played down the submarine's visit to the Colombo port describing it as a "routine port call" of an escort mission to the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. Sri Lanka also maintained the same.

The timing of the submarine and the support ship's visit to Colombo around the time President Xi Jinping visited Sri Lanka conforms to the Chinese pattern of power projection familiar to India. The intrusion of PLA troops across the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh even as the Chinese President was flying into India in the final leg of his four-nation tour was one more such instance.

Probably China wanted to remind India and its island neighbours of the PLA's expanded strategic reach both on land and sea, even as President Xi spoke eloquently about China's desire for peace and development.

Sam LaGrone writing in the US Naval Institute website saw the visit of the Chinese submarine to Colombo only in the context of counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

However, as incidents of piracy in the Gulf have now come down drastically there is no operational reason for the Chinese to strengthen the anti-piracy flotilla with a submarine. So it would be reasonable to conclude the submarines were on their operational familiarisation of Indian Ocean waters.

China's presence in Indian Ocean has security implications for not only India but other littoral countries of the region

PLAN submarines' regular presence in IOR has larger security implications not only for India but also for other littoral countries of the region. According to the US Department of Defence Annual Report to the Congress 2014 assessment the PLAN has continued to expand its operational and deployment areas further into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

It says PLA N could induct nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) in the IOR when PLA N's current strength of three JIN-class SSBNs (Type 094) is augmented. Over the next decade five more JIN-class nuclear-powered SSBNs are likely to be added. The JIN-class SSBN will carry the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with an estimated range of 7,400 km.

It concludes "the JIN-class and the JL-2 will give the PLAN its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. China is likely to conduct its first nuclear deterrence patrols with the JIN-class SSBN in 2014."

The DOD report also noted that Chinese naval exercises in 2013 had emphasized multiple PLA objectives including long-distance mobility and logistics, joint air-ground, and joint air-naval operations under realistic, high-tech conditions, and a series of amphibious landing operations in network-centric scenario.

The message is clear: Chinese naval forces are now enlarging their operational reach beyond the South China Sea and the eastern part of Indian Ocean. India may well encounter PLAN fleet with the SSBNs with nuclear deterrent capability in IOR frequently in the coming years. In the coming months we can expect to see Sri Lanka ports receiving many PLAN submarines and warships on operational familiarisation missions to IOR.

However, China's immediate strategic priority is likely to be the domination of the East and South China seas with the IOR occupying a lower order of priority. As both India and China are keen to expand their trade and economic relations, China probably expects New Delhi to recognise its interest in extending it to other South Asian countries. While this might be acceptable, India cannot afford to ignore the reality of China's strategic power projection in the IOR that accompanies Chinese economic endeavours and trade.

With India's depleted naval forces set to achieve their optimal capability in the next five to ten years, it would be prudent not to ignore even symbolic activities like the Chinese submarines and warships making regular logistic calls in India's close neighbourhood. India's foreign and defence policy makers will have to suitably strategise their policies in respect of India's strategic prioirities in the IOR and its littorals.

[Col R Hariharan, retired MI specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com]

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