Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Sri Lanka’s Dependence on China has Increased Beijing’s Strategic Manoeuvring Space in the Island

Excerpt from Teardrop Diplomacy by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, published by Bloomsbury India.

Chinese Spy Ship and Lanka’s Tilt towards Beijing

Colombo had initially denied permission to the Chinese spy ship Yuan Wang 5 to berth at the Hambantota port. However, it later changed its position clearing berthing rights, before reversing it again by denying access to the Chinese vessel. Foreign Minister Ali Sabry explained to the Cabinet that the Chinese vessel had only asked for a refueling visit, while Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena downplayed the threat of the Chinese visit with an India balancing act, calling it an ‘approach of friendship’. On 16 August 2022, however, the Chinese vessel was given clearance by Colombo to enter the Hambantota port despite the security concerns raised by New Delhi.

The Chinese dual-use spy vessel, Yuan Wang 5, was heading towards Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port on the southern coast on 11 August to berth for seven days. The vessel operates under China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) of the People ’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLASSF bring in civilian assets such as Yuan Wang 5 to augment the military capabilities and capacities. This gives it a certain leverage to hide its military agenda and project its commitment to civilian research. Elizabeth C. Economy, a senior fellow at Hoover Institute, explains in her book The World According to China that the ‘SSF is designed to serve as a coordinating body for military and civilian research and development: nine universities have signed a cooperation agreement with it.’ The vessel, used for space and satellite tracking with specific usage in intercontinental ballistic missile launches. The ship was not supposed to deploy some instruments which could be construed as spying in the Sri Lankan waters in Hambantota port, but there was no guarantee the Chinese would limit the ship to its official purpose during the visit.

China’s increasing influence

The PLASSF mandate is space, cyber and electronic warfare. The ship Yuan Wang 5 will focus on all three domains, gathering information from Hambantota port in Sri Lanka from where Kanyakumari in India’s Tamil Nadu is 451 kilometres away. While India has fully blocked Chinese technologies such as Huawei’s 5G, and acquired real-time intelligence and information capabilities allowing India to piggyback on American geospatial information to
hit enemy targets with pinpoint accuracy, China has managed an alternative route to build its space in India’s immediate periphery, expanding its communications networks in Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries.

The PLASSF has used the same tactic in many nations, including Sri Lanka, in the past through submarine port calls at crucial times, especially during internal political challenges. The October 2014 visit, for example, took place when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was three months away from his presidential election. The same pattern was seen in Australia before the Australian elections in May 2022 when the Haiwangxing, the intelligence collection vessel of PLAN, was navigating as close as 50 nautical miles from the Harold E. Holt Communication Station that provides Very Low Frequency (VLF) communication transmission services for Australian, US and allied submarines. The strategic manoeuvres were well calculated by Beijing and they deployed military assets in the waters of the Indian Ocean to create pressure on New Delhi and Canberra during the last few months.

Spying is a two-way street. The Chinese exposed their vessel Yuan Wang 5 to India’s advanced land-based monitoring systems, an opportunity India would never have had in the normal course. The Yuan Wang 5 visit only demonstrated the Chinese hold over
Sri Lanka. The denial or acceptance of such Chinese manoeuvres by littorals like Sri Lanka has a consequence and heavy burden on their foreign policy establishment, which requires strengthening the bilateral relationship with China. Beijing usually oscillates between its soft power, sharp power, and hard power from time to time, testing the genuine interest and power alignment of the new regime in Colombo, especially to understand Colombo’s foreign policy toward New Delhi. The enthusiastic welcome to Yuan Wang 5, waving of Sri Lankan and Chinese flags and the presence of several parliamentarians depicts the Chinese influence in Sri Lanka.

In the past, Beijing’s objective was obvious when a Chinese submarine port call was requested in May 2017, at the time when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be visiting Sri Lanka and President Maithripala Sirisena denied the Chinese request. While the refusal was given a few days after the request, there was clear tension and pressure on President Sirisena. Chinese Defence Attache Senior Colonel Xu Jianwei, in a meeting with this author in Colombo, stated, ‘The rejection was nothing for us [China], we used Pakistan’s Gwadar instead of Colombo,’ hinting at the multiple strategic options that China has in the Indian Ocean besides Sri Lanka. While India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have a close minilateral arrangement on security issues, there are extra-regional powers such as China that test their security cooperation. The giving of permission by Sri Lanka in the first place, being well aware of the Indian objections in the past, and then the inability to even get the visit delayed, leave alone cancelled, shows China’s power to override any mini-lateral security arrangements.

The spy ship’s purpose of gathering intelligence will become effortless when China dominates the telecommunications infrastructure of countries like Sri Lanka. The Huawei proposal lying on President Sirisena’s table in 2017 at the same time when he rejected the submarine visit is another example of China’s intentions. Sirisena stood against Huawei’s proposal to assist law and order, including surveillance cameras to monitor traffic and police in Sri Lanka, where the law and order ministry was not under the President at that time. There was a clear warning of Chinese backchannel entry into Sri Lanka’s intelligence and communications network.

Steven Feldstein explains that through such projects, Huawei alone becomes responsible for providing AI surveillance technology to at least fifty countries worldwide and many BRI nations. Uganda’s USD$126 million CCTV project by Huawei is another evidence of
China’s plans. The capture of more than 80 per cent of the entire telecommunications backbone by Chinese hardware was visible in Sri Lanka which agreed to Huawei’s 5G expansion during the previous Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime.

The Yuan Wang 5 visit is taking place when Sri Lanka is in the midst of a political–economic crisis, with limited strategic options against China’s demands. The past strategic blunders made by President Wickremesinghe regarding China when he was the prime minister are well known. In 2015, it was Wickremesinghe who was a strong critic of Chinese projects and promised investigations to expose the corruption of Rajapaksa, but the promises remained unfulfilled. Today, Wickremesinghe does not want to go through the same exercise. His focus is to bring in USD$4 billion of financial assistance from China. According to Dr Jehan Perera, a senior Sri Lankan academic, ‘Sri Lanka needs financial assistance, and it would not want to displease China by revoking the permission.’

The heavy dependence on debt and financial assistance from China has increased Beijing’s strategic manoeuvring space in the island. By approving the permission for the Chinese vessel, Wickremesinghe made a strategic miscalculation.

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