Tag Archives: Indian Ocean

IV eelam warIn this year, the IV Eelam War broke out. After the attempt of the Peace Talks from 2001 to 2005, both parties strove to resume hostilities. Many reasons have been added for the failure of the peace process. For the LTTE and especially its leader, Prabhakaran, the agreement was to far away from full independence. Of course that target was impossible to reach through negotiations, therefore only the military way was open for that purpose. On the other side the Sri Lankan government had promised even too much in the eyes of its more nationalistic constituency. Therefore in 2006 everybody was keen to start again the war.

Erik Solheim and Velupillai PrabhakaranPhoto

Erik Solheim and Velupillai Prabhakaran

The biggest loser was Norway. The Nordic country in fact dedicated a lot of efforts to find a deal. If you consider that from 2001 TGS-Nopec, a company specialized in seismic survey for oil exploration, was showing enthusiastic reports about the possibility to find petroleum reserves, you may guess that the government in Oslo had some undisclosed interests. If you add that the special envoy, Mr Erik Solheim, just on the brink of the Peace Talks ending was nominated Minister for International Development1, with specific interest in the oil sector, for the Norwegian initiative “Oil for development”,Norad2, (see Solheim’s activity in Ghana3, Sudan4, Angola5).

 But Norway is not the only country in the world searching for opportunities in the oil sector. China and India in the same period were involved in a tough race to secure contracts for natural resources

Union Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar with the President of China National Petroleum Corporation, Chen Geng in Beijing on January 13.

Union Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar with the President of China National Petroleum Corporation, Chen Geng in Beijing on January 13.

around the world. The competition was so strong, that their bidding war was driving prices up everywhere. Thus the two Asian giants decided to form an alliance. “The agreement aimed at preventing the two nations competition for oil assets pushing up prices, symbolises their increasingly assertive role in global energy politics” (source: Financial Time).6

 One of the first country to test this alliance, was precisely Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa, soon after he received information about the possible presence of oil in the Mannar Basin, decided to get rid of Norway and offered India and China one block each 78.

We are far from saying that the Peace Talks were interrupted for the oil discovery; we are also not affirming that the IV Eelam War was oil-driven and that the India and China support of Sri Lanka was motivated purely by the natural resource deal.

We can see a series of coincidences and we argue that oil played a role in Sri Lanka, maybe only a secondary one, but not completely marginal. Norway is our first indicator; the Nordic country didn’t though it could provide more transparency on its conduct, but had clearly a vested interest in the peace process in relation to the oil reserve. China and India had additional reasons to back

Anti-lankan protest led by politician and activist Vaiko in Tamil Nadu.Photo

Anti-lankan protest led by politician and activist Vaiko in Tamil Nadu.

Colombo, but it was a clever and opportune gift from Rajapaksa to offer natural resources in exchange of their help. In particular it could have represent the convincing point for New Delhi, to intervene without hesitation. India has oil operations on its side of the Strait, and the idea of leaving oil reserve in the hands of the LTTE or China alone could have been the decisive argument to make move. The energy sector is more vital and strategic for India that any other alliance of convenience between China and Sri Lanka.

If you think that oil doesn’t play any role in conflicts around the globe, then you can ignore our thesis. On the other hand, if you assume that natural resources are too important in contemporary geopolitical scenarios, and so are always involved, maybe to different extent, you may be tempted to spend more time on this hypothesis.


China's President Hu Jintao and Governor of Malacca Khalil Yakub

China’s President Hu Jintao and Governor of Malacca Khalil Yakub
Photo Reuters

President Hu Jintao back in 2003 started to mention the so called “Malacca Dilemma”, the fact that 80% of China energy needs will pass thorugh the waters of Malacca, without having any strategic influence over it1.

The Chinese leadership is quite aware that whoever will control the Strait will be able to choke the supply line of the People’s Republic. It is interesting to note that the notion of the Malacca Dilemma and the String of Pearls were born almost at the same time. The String of Pearls is much more famous, but is also more misleading. It aims to address the containment policy of China against India. If you reflect, China will never be able to evict India from the Indian Ocean. Moreover China is already a global superpower, while India is struggling to become a regional one. The only field in which they are competing directly is natural resources. But the String of Pearls won’t deny that to India. The truth is that the String of Pearls is a menace perceived by the US. Washington really could be excluded from the South East. So the Americans are pushing the Indians to think they are threatened by the Chinese.

In this puzzle, the role of a piece is growing in importance: Myanmar. Back in 2007, president Bush put its eyes on the humanitarian condition of Burmese people2. It is praiseworthy, especially from an administration that launched wars to appropriate natural resources of sovereign state, practised unlawful detentions, torture, extrajudiciary killings and so on. Myanmar is itself rich in natural resources and lies in a strategic position: just before the Malacca Strait. Much of the attention Myanmar received in recent years should be probably ascribed to this aspect, rather than the restless endeavour of the US for human rights.

Sri Lanka's President Rajapaksa and India's Prime Minister Singh

Sri Lanka’s President Rajapaksa and India’s Prime Minister Singh

The Tamil diaspora in Malaysia

Finally, with regards to Sri Lanka, it should be clear that there is no such a thing as India strangled by China. Beijing is securing its supply lane; Sri Lanka is part of this architecture. Nobody in New Delhi has been forced to do anything. What happened to the Tamils and the LTTE has nothing to do with the clash of global super powers. Sri Lankan deeds are a domestic affair for India and they have been treated as such. It is easier to blame the Chinese and because they consider this kind of debate as farcical, they don’t even defend themselves. But an accurate analysis of the geopolitical interests will show that Sri Lanka is under the patronage of India, with occasional and contingent flirtations with China, dictated by convenience rather than long term alliances.

The Malacca Strait is the place where the future rearrangement of the global balance of power will take place. India should start to look at its interest, rather than following the clue thrown by the Americans (though sometimes they could overlap in any case). And if the Tamil diaspora in Malaysia has any intention to influence the international scenario, should start to appreciate its strategic role in this context, rather than chasing the infinite intrigues of New Delhi politics.

1Chen Shaofeng, “China’s Self-Extrication from the “Malacca Dilemma” and Implications” International Journal of China Studies China’s Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2010, pp. 1-24

The notion of the String of Pearls is an American hypothesis about China’s containment of India. All the facts indicate that China is building a network of harbour facilities from the Corn of Africa, the Persian Gulf up to the shores of Indo-China. These line of ports crosses the entire Indian Ocean so it wouldn’t be wise to deny the reality of these system of of harbours. And we can keep on calling it with the name of “String of Pearls”. But it is important to investigate the purpose of these facilities. In the American definition, it is an expansive military strategy to encircle India. It suggests that any move to consolidate the String or to add another Pearl, is an offensive step against India.

East-West Shipping Lane

It is well known that the primary goal of the String is to secure the energy supply of China. More than 80% of China’s imported fuel passes along that route. So it is an obvious strategy to establish a network of military facilities to safeguard such vital energy line. Especially if you consider the bottleneck of the Malacca Straits, where an American fleet is patrolling a very short sea passage. Very easily relatively few American naval forces could choke completely the import of energy. It is important to note also that in the future the percentage of energy import will grow significantly. The String system therefore is a defensive strategy against the USA.

Chinese harbour facilities in the Indian Ocean: the String of Pearls

The question now becomes: how India is affected by China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean? This of course is an important obstacle in the Indian aspirations of becoming a regional super-power, in the Indian Ocean in particular. The fact is that though India is surrounded by water, all its strategic interests are concentrated on the mainland. The crucial one is per definition the border with Pakistan. A secondary, but important issue is with China itself on the #Andra Pradesh. Minor reasons to exercise geopolitical power lie with Nepal, Burma and Bangladesh. All on land. The only strategically relevant issue on the sea is with Sri Lanka, but the proximity is so close, that you could consider it with the land group. A lot of attention has been grabbed by the Pearl in Hambatota, Sri Lanka. Although there is no doubt that this facility will serve the Chinese maritime presence when it will be needed, it is also foolish to think that China will count on that stronghold to obstacle India in case of a confrontation. Sri Lanka is a domestic issue for India and any military escalation will see New Delhi overwhelms Colombo and any other country on its side.

The fact is that the Indian presence in the Indian Ocean is so firm that it will never really be excluded. Of course the Chinese presence can shadow all the imperialistic aspirations of New Delhi in the region, and yet, besides prestige, it is difficult if not impossible to worry the Indian presence in its own waters.

The real reason is that the USA suffer even more distance that China from the Indian Ocean and the String of Pearls is seriously menacing the American presence. Washington is heavily worried by being cut off from the region. So we can consider the String of Pearls almost entirely an anti-American defensive strategy.

We can conclude with a last reflection: if it is a China-American issue, what is the involvement of India? In the first place, the USA are uncomfortable in admitting their worries about their own containment; second they want to co-opt India on their side and convice New Delhi that they share values, goals and most of all, enemies. What is more surprising is that Beijing didn’t do much to change this perception. I suggest that China prefers to pretend of having a fictional confrontation with India, than to admit the real friction with the USA. The battle with supremacy with the USA is global and it has the potential to be nasty and dangerous, especially for the economic well-being of the Chinese people, given the mutual business relations. A confrontation with India can always be reconsider under the historical issues. And even a open, circumstanced war-fare will have very limited consequences. So for the Chinese interests is better to talk fictionally of the India’s containment, rather that facing the real rivalry with the USA.

It is possible that in the future the positions will change, that India’s strategic relevance will grow up to become a real competitors for Chinese supremacy. I suspect that even in this case it will be more a land-based confrontation rather than a naval one.

As a final remark I have to admit the appealing of the theory of the String of Pearls: a concept concisely expressed in an image, whose representation power seems to be self-explaining. It is a fortunate, well-thought artefact of geopolitical propaganda. My impression that is even too good to be real. But sometimes art not only precedes life, it can also lead it.

In an article on The Economist, Gotabaya Rajapakse revealed that his brother said “we have understood who is important to us”. The crucial point is that China is satisfied with the increase of its sphere of influence without asking questions. Palitha Kohona, former Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary put it very clearly: “Asians don’t go around teaching each other how to behave,” he said. “There are ways we deal with each other — perhaps a quiet chat, but not wagging the finger”.

In May 2012 Gotabaya Rajapaksa held talks with his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie , days before the UNHRC move to put pressure on Colombo in regards of the alleged war crimes.
“The two countries’ relations have witnessed smooth development and we have made remarkable achievements since we entered diplomatic relations 55 years ago,” Liang was quoted as saying in the report.

I note that during an intense diplomatic campaign, Sri Lanka is not contacting the foreign office but the ministry of defence.

The Rajapaksa’s clearly proved who is important to them. China will support them in security council. So, no UN resolution of any relevancy can pass. The relationship with Beijing couldn’t be more linear, straight and easy to understand.
And here we have a problem of understanding. Because the more Colombo is aligned with Beijing, the more New Delhi should be worried. If we forget for a second the severe accusations about the civilians killings and reason about the moves in the balance of forces, we have this situation. Rajapaksa strikes a special relation with China closer than ever. India considers Sri Lanka an internal affair; it can’t allow to lose the island. And it has a powerful, handy tool to counterbalance any move in Colombo. It is called LTTE and Tamil nationalism. When Sri Lanka moved too close to the USA in the ’80’s, New Delhi basically invented the LTTE and the armed struggle. So why India decides to give everything up? You may think that they prefer to start from scratch and reinvent in a new form the Tamil militancy, because they couldn’t obviously rely entirely on the LTTE. This is possible. And it takes ages. China in the short and medium term will gain land and influence. It will be much more difficult to evict the Chinese once they are there, than shutting them out in the first place.

courtesy IBN-CNN live

The traditional interpretation states that India didn’t want to lose anymore positions against China, so it supported Colombo. Essentially this version considers India’s move as chasing the Chinese and of course putting president Rajapaksa in the role of card-dealer. I think that Rajapaksa is a clever politician and he knows how to outsell his position. I think that the deals struck with the Chinese are real and effective: i.e. Hambantota will provide facilities for Chinese ships, probably also for military purposes. What I think is not real is a fearful, comatose attitude by New Delhi.
Rajapaksa always shows obedience and submission to India; many pundits comment as false and hypocritical his attitude. And they are upset by the fact that New Delhi doesn’t see how fraudulent and misleading is their counterpart in Colombo. All the Indian officers show extreme confidence in Rajapaksa.

Sonia, Rahul and Pryanka Gandhi

They are convinced that the real big ally of Sri Lanka is India, not China. It seems, they are sure that Colombo is simply milking China. I think that the Congress is not so naïve and is perfectely aware of all the news available to the pundits. I think New Delhi is the card-dealer in the Indian Ocean. And they are not chasing decisions made by Rajapaksa, but granting him concessions, which he will have to pay out. Indian generals are worried by the growing presence of the Chinese. But they are not in charge in power. Others are the rulers and I think that the rulers are not concerned by port given to the Chinese. Of course, with an appropriate exchange.

In other words, I think Rajapaksa is not the card-dealer, but simply a dealer, a middle-man, who is playing a big game in between two giants. He’s taking some risks and he’s certainly taking some good profits. But not at New Delhi’s expenses.

East West Shipping lane. Any goods moved from Europe, Middle East and Africa to South East and to Far East Asia, pass on this lane.

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).

Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean

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.

courtesy Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

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.