India’s Planning to Counter China’s Influence in Sri Lanka

By Sajjad Shaukat

Fast growing economic power of China coupled with her rising strategic relationship with the Third World has irked the eyes of Americans, Israelis, some Western countries and particularly, Indians. Owing to jealousy, America desires to make India a major power to counterbalance China in Asia.

America which is backing Indian hegemony in Asia, especially to counterbalance China is supplying New Delhi latest weapons, arms and aircraft. During President Barack Obama’s second visit to India, the US and India announced a breakthrough on a pact which would allow American companies to supply New Delhi with civilian nuclear technology, as agreed upon in 2008. Besides, America also announced $4 billion of new initiatives aimed at boosting trade and investment ties as well as jobs for the Indians. In the recent past, during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to America, President Obama strongly assured him to favour India’s membership in the coming meeting of the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), Earlier; Washington also pressurized the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) to sign an accord of specific safeguards with New Delhi. America had already contacted the NSG to grant a waiver to India for starting civil nuclear trade on larger scale.

By availing the US secret diplomacy, in the pretext of presumed threat of China, India has also been trying to establish her hegemony in South Asia.

Historically, India has continued interventionist and hegemonic policies vis-à-vis her neighbours through RAW. Besides supporting separatism in East Pakistan which resulted in dismemberment of Pakistan and continued assistance to the separatist elements of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, New Delhi occupied Sikkim, subdued Bhutan, sponsored terrorism in Sri Lanka, and has been teasing Nepal.

A part of the double game, India has also been making cordial relationship with the small countries of South Asia with a view to colonializing them gradually. For example, during the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to New Delhi, India and Bangladesh on April 8, 2017 signed 22 agreements in the fields of defence cooperation, civil nuclear energy, space and cyber security among others, following bilateral talks between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart. Both the countries also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) through which India would extend a line of credit of $500 million to support Bangladesh’s defence-related procurements.

India is also planning to counter China’s influence in Sri Lanka. In this respect, two different stories in published in Indian media, need attention.

In this context, on April 27, 2017, on a website, LiveMint.Com, Elizabeth Roche under the caption, “India renews Sri Lanka ties to counter China influence in South Asia” wrote, “India on Wednesday moved to cement closer economic ties with Sri Lanka in a bid to negate the growing influence of strategic rival China in the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. A pact on economic cooperation was signed on Wednesday in the presence of visiting Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe and his host Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The leaders welcomed the signing of the memorandum of understanding for Cooperation in Economic Projects, which outlines the agenda for bilateral economic cooperation in the foreseeable future”, an Indian foreign ministry statement without giving details—Both sides expressed their commitment to ensuring that this mutually beneficial agenda is expeditiously implemented.”

Roche explained, “Analysts said this move by India was aimed at warding off increasing Chinese influence in South Asia which India considers its sphere of influence. In recent years, China has tried to co-opt Sri Lanka and Maldives into its ambitious. One Belt One Road initiative—a programme to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects including railways, ports and power grids across Asia, Africa and Europe—When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, he started off with the ‘neighbourhood first’ approach which has not turned out how he had envisioned, said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh—Given the subsequent hiccups in the ‘neighbourhood first policy’ or placing—a deterioration of ties with Pakistan and strains in India-Nepal ties for instance—Modi seems to be looking at a new framework of ties with India’s neighbours with the aim of countering Chinese influence, Mansingh said. The new formula includes an element of strong economic cooperation, he said, pointing to India announcing the extension of a $4.5 billion line of credit for development infrastructure and other projects in Bangladesh and another $500 million for defence hardware purchases for Dhaka during the 7-9 April visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India.

Elizabeth Roche added, “On Sri Lanka’s priority list, however, is a proposal to develop the Trincomalee oil storage tank farm besides discussing the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) that the Sri Lankan government is keen to sign with India. Under the terms of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord, the two countries have to jointly develop the 99 oil tanks in Trincomalee, a relic from the British colonial times. At present Indian Oil Corp. Ltd unit Lanka IOC runs 15 out of the 99 storage tanks. The proposed joint venture pertains to the remaining 84 with Sri Lanka proposing to retain 10 of those for use by the Ceylon Petroleum Corp. During his visit to Sri Lanka in March 2015, Modi had said the project to develop the 84 tanks in Trincomalee would help the coastal town become a regional petroleum hub. However, the project did not take off fully as planned. Development of the Trincomalee port by India will help it keep an eye on Chinese activities in Beijing-built Hambantota port”, Mansingh said.”

Similarly, Indian media and websites gave much coverage to an article, published by German TV Channel (Which also publishes online news items) under the title “India Nips at China’s Heels in Race to Collect Lanka Port Assets written by Iain Marlow and Saket Sundria, April 26, 2017.

Iain Marlow and Saket Sundria wrote, “India is looking to invest in a colonial-era Sri Lankan oil-storage facility as it seeks to further its naval interests in the Indian Ocean and push China back in the process. A unit of state-owned Indian Oil Corp., the country’s largest refiner, is set to help fund the $350 million development of an 84-tank facility at the strategically located Trincomalee port on Sri Lanka’s east coast. India and Sri Lanka are also discussing setting up a refinery in the island nation, according to Shyam Bohra, managing director of Indian Oil’s subsidiary Lanka IOC. The talks come before a meeting Wednesday between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in New Delhi. Modi is also due to visit Sri Lanka next month.”

The co-writers said, “Still, India’s interests in the Sri Lankan port are probably more strategic than economic, part of its effort to displace hefty investment coming into the country from China and preserving a key gateway to the Indian Ocean. China is expanding both militarily and economically in the region, and its submarines have docked previously in Colombo. Analysts cautioned that India has been slow to make big investments in Trincomalee for decades, partly because New Delhi is content with a small base that keeps adversaries out. There’s also no business case for a third major port in the South Asian country of 20 million people, they said.”

Iain Marlow and Saket Sundria explained, “The biggest Indian strategic concern is that no one else uses that harbor for military purposes, said David Brewster, a senior research fellow with the Australian National University’s National Security College. And once it has a foothold, there’s a much more difficult question of whether it will make significant investments. The port at Trincomalee and its oil storage tanks was built by the British when Sri Lanka was a colony and was used as a regional base for the Royal Navy. Fifteen tanks are operational, each with a capacity of 12 million liters, or about 75,500 barrels. A further 84 are slated to be renovated, bringing the total capacity to almost 7.5 million barrels. By comparison, the Asian oil trading hub of Singapore has about 63 million barrels of independent storage. Lanka IOC is managing the 15 tanks and a lubricant blending unit. The governments of India and Sri Lanka have agreed in-principle to jointly develop part of the tank farm, Bohra said, adding details are yet to be finalized. The Sri Lankan government has suggested that Lanka IOC retain 74 of the 84 reconstructed tanks through an equal joint venture with Ceylon Petroleum Corp., Chandima Weerakkody, Sri Lanka’s minister of petroleum resources development, said by phone. The other 10 would be handed back to Ceylon Petroleum, he said. Bohra also said Lanka IOC is open to joint development of the tank farm. Something should definitely happen because we are very keen to see to it that the facility is developed, Weerakkody said. However, the minister compared India’s investments unfavorably to China’s. India should expedite their projects that they engage in, he said. Chinese investments—they are pretty quick. India’s foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment. If India’s investments materialize, the historic but relatively obscure port could become a hub for New Delhi, whose navy must go around Sri Lanka as it crosses from ports on India’s west coast in the Arabian Sea to those on the east coast in the Bay of Bengal. But New Delhi’s plans would almost certainly be worth far less than Beijing’s ambitious infrastructure-building in Sri Lanka. China has already built a port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka’s south in a move that alarmed Indian observers.”

Iain Marlow and Saket Sundria futher wrote, “Beijing has also invested heavily in Gwadar, a port in Pakistan that serves as the terminus of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Meanwhile, India is making slow progress on a nearby port at Chabahar in Iran, which could one day allow Indian goods to reach Afghanistan by rail. Sri Lanka does not want any Indian Oil investment in its existing refinery at Sapugaskanda, close to Colombo, which processes 50,000 barrels a day for domestic consumption, Weerakkody said, adding the company is welcome to set up a refinery for exports. Sri Lanka plans to double the capacity of the refinery—Analysts said Sri Lanka doesn’t need any more ports, and that India’s geopolitical interest in Trincomalee far outweighs any commercial interests. The main port in Colombo is already a major trans-shipment route for large vessels, whose goods are unloaded, put on smaller ships and sent to Indian ports, said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. Even Hambantota is not viable as a commercial operation, Joshi said, noting China is developing a special economic zone surrounding the port to boost business. It’s a tribute to Indian incompetence and Indian inefficiency that goods are trans-shipped in Sri Lanka, Joshi said, noting that developing Trincomalee might actually create competition for developing Indian ports such as Chennai.”

However, we may conclude that while, playing double game and by availing the double standards of the US-led countries in the region, especially in relation to India and Pakistan, India is planning to counter China’s influence in Sri Lanka.

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