Inside China: Indian Ocean fortress

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In recent years, China has invested heavily in building up military facilities and naval ports in the small but strategically located Indian Ocean state of Sri Lanka.

It has spent more there than most of its allies because a close military alliance, and possibly People’s Liberation Army presence, would fundamentally challenge India’s dominant influence in the Indian Ocean.

Also, one of the world’s most important sea lines of communication passes through Sri Lanka.

China’s lavish spending on Sri Lankan military facilities reached a new height last week when visiting Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie offered another $100 million specifically for the island’s armed forces to “improve the Sri Lankan military’s infrastructure and logistics equipment,” according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

But India’s Hindustan Times reported that Gen. Liang’s grant would be used to woo the Sri Lankan military by building “Army welfare projects initiated by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense.”

Starting Aug. 29, Gen. Liang and his military entourage of 23 generals and staff members from the headquarters of five of China’s seven front-line military regions roamed Sri Lanka for five days, conducting substantial talks and signing multiple agreements with the country’s military authorities.

In fact, the hobnobbing between the Chinese military and its Sri Lankan counterpart was so extensive that Gen. Liang himself was asked to teach an impromptu class at Sri Lanka’s National Defense University, located at Sapugaskanda, in addition to receiving an inspection tour of the Sri Lanka army barracks in Panagoda that were financed and built by the Chinese military.

China has eyed Sri Lanka for its geographic location and its excellent naval ports as a strategic wedge that can provide a check on India and help it exert stronger influence in the Indian Ocean and the adjacent Persian Gulf.

At the top of China’s list of influence-peddling designs on Sri Lanka is a plan to exert control over its seaports along one of the world’s busiest sea lines, with 200 to 300 mega-vessels passing by every day en route from the Persian Gulf to and from China, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Southeast Asia and the United States.

In 2007, China obtained the right to finance and build a huge seaport capable of accommodating the world’s largest merchant and naval ships at Hambantota. It took Chinese naval and maritime engineers and Chinese port construction workers five years to complete.

In June, after China had spent $1.5 billion on the project, the deep-sea Port of Hambantota began operations, serving as one of the most significant logistics hubs for all transoceanic shipping vessels in the Indo-Pacific region.

But that’s not all. China appears determined to dominate the buildup of Sri Lanka. The Colombo government announced in June, with enthusiastic glee, that China had agreed to spend $50 billion over the next 10 to 15 years to construct key civilian and military infrastructure projects for the small nation, including a second seaport at the capital, Colombo.

The Sri Lankan government, for its part, has not been shy about asking for more from the extraordinarily generous Chinese. Last week, according to official Chinese press reports, Colombo formally asked China’s Import and Export Bank for another loan, of $1.12 billion with preferential terms, to build more facilities at the brand-new Port of Hambantota and a new railway line in the south of the nation.

Curiously, the construction company that will build those projects is also a Chinese one.

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