Sri Lanka lies few miles away from the busiest shipping lane of the world: the East-West route. All the maritime transport of goods from Europe, Middle East and Africa towards Asia, pass through that lane. The strategic valued of Sri Lanka cannot possibly be overstated. 70% of China oil supply from Middle East and Africa, travels through that lane (see Christopher J. Pehrson,2006 String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power Across the Asian Littoral, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies. Institute). To protect this vital artery, China developed what has been dubbed the “String of Pearls”, a series of strategic ports to secure this line in Pakistan, Maldives, Myanmar, Cambodia and Sri Lanka (see ibidem).
Any of these pearl has its own value. In Pakistan for example the Gwadar is connecting the Xinjiang region with the Indian Ocean. It is only 240 miles distant from the Strait of Hormuz . Myanmar has its own gas reserve to be exploited and refined. But Sri Lanka case is peculiar.
It’s on very the route of the East-West Shipping lane. And it is only 20 miles from India.
Chinese premier Hu Jintao affirmed that the Indian Ocean will become an example of “harmonious ocean”. The argument goes that you don’t need to fear the Chinese naval expansion. Clearly the first reaction is that probably Chinese are in the business of re-semantization. Harmonious here sounds to much as hegemonic. But Mr Hu Jintao is building also at home an harnonious society…Probably the source of misunderstanding is that Beijing wants in good faith establish a new order. But it is not ready to negotiate it. The suspicion comes only from the fact that Beijing expect everyone to gladly accept its plans. They are probably good plans, but without discussion, the harmony looks pretty much imposed.
The String of Pearls theory started in 2005. In that year aid from China jumped from few handful of millions to a staggering $ 1 billion in 2005. In 2011 more than $ 3.7 billion have been allocated for the project. The construction of the port was launched in January 20087.
China bankrolled the project, but also heavily supported the government in its war against the LTTE. Not only Beijing sold military technology desperately needed by Colombo, in order to build an edge against the guerrilla of the Tigers. China also backed institutionally Sri Lanka in front of the United Nations. Essentially with its vote in the security council guaranteed to Colombo impunity for any possible misconduct committed during the war.
Few doubt that Colombo is a pearl for China; the question is: why India was so happy to underwrite the same strategy that is tightening the string in its own sphere of influence?
Sri Lanka must have very good arguments.