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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.

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Muslim in Sri Lanka are quite a distinct case. Unlike Tamils and Sinhalese, they never made any claim of sovereignty in the island. But they found themselves harshly hit by the civil war. They suffered ethnic cleansing in the Northern Provinces by the LTTE and complete oblivion by the Sri Lankan government as refugees.

About 100,000 Muslim Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) for the past 20 years have lived in refugee camps in Puttalam District and neighbouring areas. Tamil Tigers had expelled them.courtesy asianews.it

In Puttalam more than 100 000 people have been forgotten in refugee camps for 20 years. As recent as in 2009 the UNCHR (the United Nations agency for refugees), in partnership with Brandix Lanka were still struggling to deliver basic needs, like water and sanitation to them.

The Muslim in the Northern Provinces were Tamil speakers and lived in the region since hundreds of years. Their presence in modern times is old as the ones of Tamil or Sinhalese; yet they were considered stranger by the LTTE, on the main ground that they weren’t ‘real’ Tamils. If it was necessary, an evidence more of LTTE’s lack of democratic and inclusive conscience.

On the other side as well, Colombo showed its absolute disinterest for any other ethnic group outside the Sinhalese. During the IV Eelam War, Muslims parties have orbited around president Rajapaksa, on the ground that as a minority, it was better to cooperate rather than contest the majoritarian force of the central government. In the present coalition of government, Sri Lankan Muslims are present as ministers, but this compromise seems shor-lived.

The supremacist Sinhalese sentiment is growing stronger also against the Muslims. In April, radical Buddhists have tried to demolish the mosque of Dambulla. They fire-stormed the mosque and they threatened 70 others buildings of cult.

The monks involved in the protest claimed that they are just protecting Buddhism from encroachment, but everyone knows that all the other religions on the island are quite low-profile and don’t dare to contest the dominant position of the Buddhism. The minorities only try to survive in a climate of mistrust and oppression.

It is significative that the government is placidly turning its eyes somewhere else, when these cases of hatred and violence erupt. In a state where authoritarian rule is based on the iron-fist of the army, you may wonder how episodes of anarchy can take place. The reason is always the same: from the communal riots of ’58 and ’83, the government is implicitly backing up the racist-driven unrest.

All the the rhetoric of the Sri Lankan state is dedicated towards a unitarian entity, but in any possible occasion it is remarked that unity Sri Lanka is Sinhalese and Buddhist. Consequently all the other minorities should consider themselves as barely tolerated.

The reality in the island is an intense hatred of the minorities by the majority. Sometimes this underground sentiment surfaces and explodes in violence. But the government is far from trying to reign it. On the contrary it deliberately let the steam off as a measure of control and threaten of the minority.

The LTTE was responsible for heinous crime, but the war was not anti-terrorism. The Tigers desperately tried to resist a force of discrimination and oppression, a violent force with the secret intent of eliminating and wiping out all the outsiders of the Sinhalese mainstream.

Until Sri Lanka will come to terms of the diversity within itself, an underlying resentment of the other minorities will be kept alive for further challenges of this unjust authority.

 


On July the 23rd 1983 a small group of Tamil rebels ambushed the Four Four Bravo convoy of the Sri Lankan Army. The rebels, a cell of the LTTE, killed 13 out of 15 soldiers of the patrol. A very severe and negative judgement should be expressed on the overall activity of the LTTE: the Tigers committed several crimes; precise and detailed account are available from international and independent sources. Any Tamil should be more aware of the dark side of the Tigers. The LTTE in many, too many occasions hit civilians and innocents. But in that infamous July of 29 years ago, the target was military, completely military. Within the legal framework of a state is clearly an act of aggression, but it is not even criminal. In fact the rebels stands precisely to contest that framework and they suspend themselves from the law of a state they consider oppressive and unjust. Other laws stand, though. It’s the beginning of war and wartime laws apply. For example, it’s not murder to kill a man of the opposite faction, under appropriate circumstances. But must of all, the laws of humanity apply. Civilians per definition are exempted by the hostilities (and soldiers who surrender).

On the other hand, the state has all its right to eliminate this challenge to its authority and sovereignty. The Sri Lankan army would have been on the right side, had responded to Tigers’ fire.

But it didn’t.

President Jayawardene, few days before the riots, said on the Daily Telegraph:

‘I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us… The more you put pressure in the North, the happier the Sinhala people will be here…really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy’

This is very clear statement that the government is not interested in suppressing violence against the Tamils. These words came out two weeks before the riots.

What happened is that ‘spontaneous mob’ targeted Tamil citizens and properties. People have been decapitated, burned alive, massacred. And the police and the army took very bland and superficial measures. Some members of political parties actually took active part in the violence, leading groups of thugs. Nobody has been seriously prosecuted for those events. The lack of intervention of the state was a clear message that the killing of the Tamils is a legitimated action. At least in the framework of an ethnic pogrom.

Now, in political theory the state has the monopoly of violence: the government had the right of responding to the LTTE attack precisely and only for this reason. From a theoretical point of view, the mob violence is a form of insurgency and a challenge to the state sovereignty of the same nature as the one of the LTTE. Mob violence should be treated as terrorism. Instead the government let it go. It didn’t take appropriate counter measures, it didn’t punish people responsible. In other words, it tacitly condoned the event. Well, as we have seen, not even so tacitly. The words of president Jayawardene are heavy as rocks and sharp as swords, in the agitated context of the July 1983. The pogrom of the Black July is a responsibility of the Sri Lankan state. The Tamil insurgency started appropriately with an army to army aggression, whereas the government reaction continued to target civilians and to be ethnic oriented. No surprise that this single-minded racial violence escalated to a civil war. It is out of the question that the start of war was caused by the oppressive and violent stance of the Sri Lankan government.

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courtesy EPA

The LTTE and Sri Lankan Government mimicked each other’s conduct and reached an equilibrium that could have prolonged the years of bloodshed. A radical change was necessary to break the cycle of blow for blow retaliations and the first catalyst emanated from international waters.

East-West Shipping lane route

China.  The sudden resurgence of such a giant superpower revolutionized the geopolitical axis and reshaped the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka lies just five miles off the East-West Shipping Lane; a maritime corridor used by ships as the major trade and transportation route from South-East Asia and the Far-East to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  80% of the oil imported by China is conveyed along this shipping lane, and it expected that China will increasingly rely on such importations to fuel its growing energy demands in the future.  As such, the importance of Beijing securing a firm sphere of influence on the tiny island of Sri Lanka can’t be understated.

Chinese Port in the Indian Ocean- The so called ‘String of Pearls’

U.S. observers identified the expansion strategy of China along the shipping lane, as it built ports and facilities to safeguard its future energy supply. The amassed harbours have been christened as the ‘String of Pearls’; from Pakistan to the Maldives, Seychelles, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, China is effectively practicing a containment policy against India.  India was shaken by the success of the Sri Lankan-Chinese talks.  Sri Lanka is just a stone’s throw away from the mainland and India had always assumed its neighbour to be a firm ally.  New Delhi counterbalanced the action by starting to court Vietnam and their resources in the South China Sea, deeply angering Beijing.

courtesy Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation

Even in the face of betrayal, India remained a supporter of Rajapakse. It seems that China and India may not be playing as rivals, but rather as partners. Western commentators can only perceive the competition between the two giants, but it is more likely that the common interests shared by the Elephant and the Dragon will overshadow their minor frictions.

Indeed, many questions remain unanswered about the direction that India now wants to take in its role as the regional superpower, but you may find the answer if you look closely enough at the reflections from the broken shards of glass.