As the United States grows increasingly concerned about the role of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is supporting China’s role in the region.
Addressing a gathering of naval delegations from 28 countries at the annual maritime conference in the southern city of Galle on December 13, Rajapaksa insisted that multimillion-dollar funding from China to Sri Lankan ports was purely a commercial interest.
“China has an industry-intensive economy that requires oil imports amounting to more than 200 million tons every year,” he stated. “Most of these oil imports are sourced from the Middle East, and then transported through the Indian Ocean to China. It is obvious that the safety and stability of the Indian Ocean is critical for China’s energy security, and its increasing interest and increasing naval presence in this region is quite understandable.”
China has already invested $360 million into expanding Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and loaned millions more for other infrastructure projects.
It only takes a quick glance at a world map to see that the Indian Ocean is a vitally strategic pathway for maritime trade. This massive body of water connects four of the great raw-material-producing regions of the world—East Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East—with the power blocs that are the hungriest for those resources—China, Japan and the European Union.
More than 80 percent of the world’s seaborne hydrocarbon trade transits through Indian Ocean choke points.
Right in the midst of the Indian Ocean’s crisscrossing shipping lanes is the strategic island of Sri Lanka, which has one of the fines,t ports in the world, Trincomalee. Great Britain seized control of Trincomalee from the Netherlands in 1795, fearing that the Dutch alliance with the French would give the French Empire control of Indian Ocean trade routes. For the next 152 years, Britain’s control over Sri Lanka ensured Anglo-Saxon trade access to Australia, India and the Orient.
During World War ii, the port of Trincomalee protected the British Seventh Fleet, and proved to be an invaluable asset after London lost the Singapore Naval Base to the Japanese in 1942.
This strategic gateway was completely lost by Britain after London relinquished control of Trincomalee air and naval bases to a newly independent Sri Lanka in 1957. The Sri Lankan government is now being courted by Chinese leaders, who would like to see the port of Trincomalee as a strategic asset in their “String of Pearls” strategy to control the Indian Ocean. This strategy is an attempt by China to control every major Indian Ocean port between Hong Kong and the Port of Sudan as a means of securing access to Middle Eastern oil.
Sri Lanka’s transformation from British colony to Chinese pearl highlights the declining influence of Britain in the Indian Ocean, putting both British and American trade interests in an extremely precarious position. Reference Ron Fraser’s column “The Great Sea Gate Contest” for more-in-depth analysis. ▪