By Latheef Farook –
China needs Hambantota port to protect its Indian Ocean sea route to ensure its growing trade with Africa and uninterrupted supply of oil.
However, to Sri Lanka it is a national disaster with unprecedented consequences for generations to come. To a war battered and debt-ridden country like Sri Lanka, with corrupt politicians and equally corrupt bureaucracy, Hambantota port project, involving billions of dollars of loan, was unnecessary and disastrous especially in the context of the island’s collapsing economy.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the former Soviet Union in December 1979, the west led by United States was busy with their wars in the Middle East to create Greater Israel while China began entering African countries, concluding agreements and undertaking development projects besides finding markets for its products.
As a result, China’s trade with Africa, at around ten billion dollars in 2002, reached around 200 billion dollars in 2006. China’s four trillion-dollar trade and seven million barrels of daily oil is transacted through the Indian Ocean sea route.
Thus the Indian ocean has become indispensable to China. However, there were fears that this sea trade route can be choked by blocking mainly Malacca Strait by hostile powers.
To overcome this threat China tied up with its longstanding trustworthy partner – Pakistan and started building an alternate trade route as part of an ambitious 46-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor-CPEC project.
The unique CPEC project connects China and Pakistan to the sea through the quickest route. Under this overall program China intends to build a web of networks such as the Southern Silk Road, the Central Asia Silk Road, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the CPEC.
It could be a pivot to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) concept that aims to connect 60 countries on the Asia and European land mass.
One of them was linking the strategically important Pakistani port of Gwadar in the Persian Gulf to China’s Xinjiang region through a vast network of highways and railways, upgrading and expanding infrastructure and overhauling of the transportation infrastructure, sea ports, imports oil and gas pipeline. This land route, shortens distance with the Gulf market by 10,000 kilometers, and it is bound to change the entire geo politics of the region
One should not forget that one of the main reasons why the now collapsed Soviet Union dispatched troops to Afghanistan was to gain access to warm waters of Persian Gulf.
Thus, the development of the strategically located port of Gwadar and a modern airport there also bound to raise concern from Gulf sheikhdoms, Tehran, Moscow to Washington, London, Paris, Tel Aviv and New Delhi.
China also developed its own strategy for the Indian Ocean by setting up a series of ports in friendly countries along the ocean’s northern seaboard from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. It was in this context one should view the importance of Hambantota port for Chinese and how Sri Lanka was roped in.
The Chinese government is also planning a canal across the Isthmus of Kra, in Thailand, to link the Indian Ocean to China’s Pacific coast – a project on the scale of the Panama Canal. This could further tip Asia’s balance of power in China’s favor by giving China’s expanding navy and commercial maritime fleet easy access from East Africa to Japan and the Korean Peninsula.
Simultaneously China is cultivating its relations with countries of the region through aid, trade and defense agreements. One important factor pushing China to build alternative routes is the fact that Indian navy, soon to be the third largest in the world after those of the United States and China, will function as an antidote to Chinese military expansion.
Pakistan’s only coastline is on the Indian Ocean and it is vital for trade and energy supply besides preventing India from dominating the areas closest to Pakistan.
India’s ambitious program to expand its influence on land and sea from Iran to Thailand, India cannot view CPEC positively. India, as openly declared by -BJP leaders has its own ambition to stretch its borders from Afghanistan to Thailand.
One of the biggest Challenges United states is facing is in the Indian Ocean where both China and India are emerging as the major maritime and economic powers posing challenge to US’s decades of hegemony.
It is common knowledge that USA is manipulating regional states to push countries away from Chinese Camp to obstruct China’s expansion in the South China Sea as well as in East China Sea. US does not want the region to be dominated by any single state because that would seriously jeopardize its long term economic interests as well as disturb the balance of power in the region.
This is specially so in view of the shifting of economic center from the west to the east. If controlled by any [Asian] nation, key choke points in the Indian Ocean, including the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, and Bab el Mandeb, could tilt the balance of trade further towards Asia.
In the Indian Ocean region, the US also has naval presence in Bahrain, Djibouti and, Diego Garcia and engages in exercises with various African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries along the Indian Ocean coastline.
Under the new growing Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi axis, U.S. is courting India to assign the lead role in the Indian Ocean, which is unacceptable to both China and Pakistan. In fact, India’s cozying up to powers that China is suspicious of, compels China and Pakistan to strengthen their alliance further. China-Pakistan strategic naval partnership centered on Gwadar will scuttle the Indo-U.S. ambition of dominating the Indian Ocean.
Europe also has strong economic and security interests in the Indian Ocean. European countries are working to obtain rights to mine the seabed of the Indian Ocean for valuable metals, with some foreseeing a rush in the coming years. In addition, European countries have substantial fishing interests; Some reports estimates they harvest 48 Percent in the Indian Ocean.
Middle East despite its vast resources, military and economic power is in turmoil due to on going US led European-Israeli wars and the dictators installed in power by the west serve them obediently.
As rightly pointed out by research analyst Salman Rafi Sheikh” Indian Ocean has become the hub of political, strategic and economic activities because of the presence of conventional and nuclear vessels of the major powers in the area and because of its own economic and strategic significance.
One columnist pointed out that Indians and the Chinese are likely to enter a dynamic great-power rivalry in these waters, with their economic interests as major trading partners locking them in an uncomfortable embrace. He added that what is becoming obvious as things unfold is that no single state would be able to dominate the region singularly; therefore, a sort of multilateral set up will have to be established whereby each country can “equitably” pursue its goals.
It was in the context of these rivalries one needs view Chinese presence in Hambantota with its own port and airport.