29 May, 2022


Security Concerns Over Chinese Submarines Visit To Colombo

By R Hariharan

 Col. (retd) R.Hariharan

Col. (retd) R.Hariharan

India expressed “serious concern to India’s national security” to Sri Lanka Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he met the Defence Minister Arun Jaitley and the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval at New Delhi on October 20, 2014 over the docking of a Chinese submarine “Great Wall No.329” in Colombo harbour along with the support ship “Changxing Island” from September 7 to 14, 2014.[i] The wrong identification of the diesel-electric Song class submarine as a nuclear-propelled submarine (SSN) sensationalised the first reports on the incident adding to public concern in India.

The two Chinese naval ships were docked in the Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT) in which China has invested $500 million, indicating the possibility of China using its commercial infrastructure assets in Sri Lanka for military purposes.

After the Defence Secretary’s visit, Sri Lanka Naval Chief Vice Admiral Jayantha Perera also visited New Delhi at the invitation of his Indian counterpart Admiral RK Dhowan apparently to discuss the same issue. Talking to the media Admiral Perara allayed India’s fears on increasing Chinese military presence in the island nation. He said “We will never compromise on national security of India. India’s security is our security.”[ii]



Admiral Perera also downplayed the worry about China making any strategic inroads into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). “They are coming normally for operational goodwill visit….For your information there is no Chinese military presence….the interest is very commercial,” he added.

But even after all this, yet another Chinese submarine – this time a nuclear-propelled one – “Changzheng-2” along with a PLA Navy (PLAN) escort warship “Chang Xing Dao” docked in Colombo on November 6, 2014.[iii]

Even as the SSN submarine and its escort ship were waiting to dock in the Colombo harbour on November 4, 2014 Sri Lanka Petroleum Industries Minister Anura P Yapa told the media that the government would not be having talks with India on this issue. This leaves no doubt that Sri Lanka has opted to ignore India’s security concerns over PLAN warships using Sri Lanka’s port facilities.

Media has raised some doubts about the applicability of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) to the use of Sri Lanka port facilities by Chinese warships. Paragrah 2(II) of the letters exchanged between the President of Sri Lanka and the Indian Prime Minister of July 29, 1987 along with the ISLA stipulates: “Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.”[iv]

While legal pundits might rake their brain whether foreign war ships on anti-piracy mission in peacetime constitute an operational force or not, Sri Lanka’s stand appears to be perfectly legal as Paragraph 2(II) quoted earlier does not form part of the ISLA. Perhaps for this reason India had not objected when Pakistan warships had regularly been berthing in Colombo.

India’s security concerns are not limited to the PLA N submarine’s visit to Colombo only, but to the larger issue of Sri Lanka becoming China strategic ally and partner in China’s strategic power projection in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

The reason for this is simple.  The security interests of both India and Sri Lanka are closely interwoven and India plays a big role in their close strategic security relations. This applies to Maldives’ security also. India’s military training facilities are used extensively by Sri Lankan and Maldivian defence forces. The three nations entered into a trilateral agreement in 2013 under which the Indian Navy and Coast Guard patrol to protect the Extended Economic Zones (EEZ) of India and the two island neighbours.[v]

In keeping with the spirit of close relationship, usually President Rajapaksa is cautious in handling critical concerns of India. Accustomed to the laid back style of Manmohan Singh government, Rajapaksa is probably not very comfortable with Modi’s assertive leadership posture. In spite of this, what has made Rajapaksa to drop his caution and ignore India security concerns, to allow Chinese submarines to use the facilities of Sri Lankan ports?

Is it a forerunner of Sri Lanka’s participation in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route (MSR) promoted by President Xi Jinping? Does the cooperation under MSR involve extending all the facilities to Chinese war ships transiting IOR on a mission?

Or is it part of the bilateral “strategic cooperation partnership” agreement of 2013 that was substantially expanded after President Xi Jinping’s visit to Colombo in September 2014?

Hambantota port and the expansion of the Colombo harbour are important infrastructure assets created with Chinese-funding and expertise. Are there any secret clauses in their project agreements to extend all facilities in these ports to Chinese warships?

These are some of the issues Indian strategy planners and the government would be debating in the coming months.

But President Rajapaksa’s compulsions to concede to China’s demands might be more mundane and down to earth. They could be related to Rajapaksa desire to garner China’s financial assistance and loans to service Sri Lanka’s debt repayment as well as indulge in some populist schemes to woo voters when he contests the presidential elections for a third time in January 2015.

China has already emerged as the biggest lender to Sri Lanka government with loans to the tune of $ 5 billion. This has helped Rajapaksa to implement most of his ambitious but low yielding infrastructure projects including roads, railways, international airports and power projects. Sri Lanka-China trade is rapidly expanding. Sri Lanka is poised to sign a Free Trade Agreement with China in 2015 to balance Sri Lanka’s lopsided trade equation. Sri Lanka ports stand to gain from increased maritime traffic when China fully implements the MSR. And last but not least China has cash in the kitty. So Rajapaksa would probably like to keep the Chinese in good humour to benefit from China’s ambitious mission to expand into South Asia.

Rajapaksa also knows that neither Sri Lanka nor India can wish away each other’s umbilical links bound by geo-strategy, history and culture just because Sri Lanka allowed China to enter their strategic space.

Even though China has been furthering its strategic interests in Sri Lanka for a decade now, it says it respects Indian interests in Sri Lanka as well as IOR. China has also made clear that it was not looking for bases in IOR. Last December, China’s Ministry of National Defence had informed Indian military attaches two months in advance about  the deployment of a PLA N SSN attack submarine in IOR to show “respect for India” as per Indian media report. China’s caution was evident in reporting on the September 15 incident also. Chinese media reports on the submarine’s presence in Colombo merely reproduced Sri Lankan media reports.[vi]

However, Chinese media prominently carried the Ministry of National Defence Geng Yansheng’s denial that docking of a submarine in Colombo was a sign of China’s power projection in the IOR.[vii] At a regular press conference on September 25, he played down the submarine’s visit to the Colombo port describing it as a “routine port call” of an escort mission to the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. Sri Lanka also maintained the same.

The timing of the submarine and the support ship’s visit to Colombo around the time President Xi Jinping visited Sri Lanka conforms to the Chinese pattern of power projection familiar to India. The intrusion of PLA troops across the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh even as the Chinese President was flying into India in the final leg of his four-nation tour was one more such instance. Probably China wanted to remind India and its island neighbours of the PLA’s expanded strategic reach both on land and sea, even as President Xi spoke eloquently about China’s desire for peace and development.

Sam LaGrone writing in the US Naval Institute website saw the visit of the Chinese submarine to Colombo only in the context of counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.[viii] However, as incidents of piracy in the Gulf have now come down drastically there is no operational reason for the Chinese to strengthen the anti-piracy flotilla with a submarine. So it would be reasonable to conclude the submarines were on their operational familiarisation of Indian Ocean waters.

PLAN submarines’ regular presence in IOR has larger security implications not only for India but also for other littoral countries of the region. According to the US Department of Defence Annual Report to the Congress 2014 assessment the PLAN has continued to expand its operational and deployment areas further into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. [ix]

It says PLA N could induct nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) in the IOR when PLA N’s current strength of three JIN-class SSBNs (Type 094) is augmented. Over the next decade five more JIN-class nuclear-powered SSBNs are likely to be added. The JIN-class SSBN will carry the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) with an estimated range of 7,400 km.

It concludes “the JIN-class and the JL-2 will give the PLAN its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent. China is likely to conduct its first nuclear deterrence patrols with the JIN-class SSBN in 2014.”

The DOD report also noted that Chinese naval exercises in 2013 had emphasized multiple PLA objectives including long-distance mobility and logistics, joint air-ground, and joint air-naval operations under realistic, high-tech conditions, and a series of amphibious landing operations in network-centric scenario.

The message is clear: Chinese naval forces are now enlarging their operational reach beyond the South China Sea and the eastern part of Indian Ocean. India may well encounter PLAN fleet with the SSBNs with nuclear deterrent capability in IOR frequently in the coming years. In the coming months we can expect to see Sri Lanka ports receiving many PLAN submarines and warships on operational familiarisation missions to IOR.

However, China’s immediate strategic priority is likely to be the domination of the East and South China seas with the IOR occupying a lower order of priority. As both India and China are keen to expand their trade and economic relations, China probably expects New Delhi to recognize its interest in extending it to other South Asian countries. While this might be acceptable, India cannot afford to ignore the reality of China’s strategic power projection in the IOR that accompanies Chinese economic endeavours and trade.

With India’s depleted naval forces set to achieve their optimal capability in the next five to ten years, it would be prudent not to ignore even symbolic activities like the Chinese submarines and warships making regular logistic calls in India’s close neighbourhood. India’s foreign and defence policy makers will have to suitably strategise their policies in respect of India’s strategic prioirities in the IOR and its littorals.


[i] India conveys concern at China presence in Sri Lanka, October 26, 2014 The Hindu http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-conveys-concern-at-chinese-presence-in-lanka/article6533496.ece

[ii] ‘Lankan Navy Chief allays India’s fears on China, says his nation will not compromise on India’s security, October 2, 2014 The Nation, Colombo      http://www.nation.lk/edition/breaking-news/item/34668-sl-will-never-compromise-on-indias-national-security-sri-lankan-navy-chief.html

[iii] ‘New Delhi perturbed’, November 2, Ceylon Today, http://www.ceylontoday.lk/31-76834-news-detail-new-delhi-perturbed.html

[v] Karthikeyan TC, “India, Sri Lanka & Maldives: Regaining India’s Strategic Space” August , 2013 http://www.ipcs.org/article/india/ipcs-debate-india-sri-lanka-maldives-regaining-indias-strategic-space-4076.html

[vi] ‘PLA Navy submarine visits Sri Lanka’ September 24, 2014 China Military online http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2014-09/24/content_6152669.htm

vi ‘China: Submarine docking in Sri Lanka was routine’ September 26, 2014 http://www.ecns.cn/cns-wire/2014/09-26/136331.shtml

[viii] LaGrone Sam, ‘Chinese Submarine Headed to Gulf of Aden for Counter Piracy Operations’ September 30, 2014 http://news.usni.org/2014/09/30/chinese-submarine-headed-gulf-aden-counter-piracy-operations

[ix] United States Department of Defense Annual Report to the Congress 2014 www.defense.org

*Col R Hariharan, retired MI specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com Blog: http://www.col.hariharan.info 

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Latest comments

  • 11

    Is Srilanka going to be India’s Ukraine?


    • 4


      “Is Srilanka going to be India’s Ukraine?”

      Sri Lanka is already the Sinhala State of India.

  • 3

    Back in 1980, the Indian thinking was Tricomalee port may be used by USA for military purposes. All JRJ interested was economic partnership.

    The resulting activities ended up in 1987 Indian debacle. The then Indian mis-adventurism lead to their PM dead blown to pieces. Thousands of Indian soldiers perished. Tamils reduced to nothing etc.

    What did India gain? Well, nothing really. I think these Indian “pundits” need to get some perspective. Trinco was never a strategically important to USA.

    What is the thinking here? Chinese submarines docking here for what purpose? Snoop on India? Surely being a submarine it can do that mid sea – they don’t need Colombo port? Or are they thinking Chinese attempts to make land intrusions into India perhaps?

    The only reason the British captured India was for spices. Although after refrigeration was invented, who would want to occupy India?

    If a conflict flares between India and China, why would China position its assets in Ceylon within Indian ground based missile range? The distance from Ceylon back to Chinese bases will make using port facilities there a silly thing to do.

    China does not gain by conflict. They are astute business persons. They use their military assets to secure international supply lines.

  • 0

    [Edited out]

  • 2

    Please wake up form your long false dream from 1987.

  • 0

    China’s hegemony over Sri Lanka has become a reality and come to stay. China will control not only the waters of Hambantota but also the strategic waters of Trincomalee in the east. The geo political strategy adopted by China dubbed the string of pearls has come to reality. This has been made possible by the Rajapaksa regime that is indebted to the Chinese regime by way of indiscriminate loans and aid. Further the members of the Rajapaksa family have also been more than adequately rewarded and compensated thus enabling China to take control over the future destinies of Sri Lanka. This has been happening while the Indian leadership were busy enriching themselves and being involved in their own political squabbles. Narendra Modi may soon wake up to the reality of realising that it is now too late to throw off the Chinese yoke in the Indian ocean while Sri Lanka watches the fun. It may be necessary for the Indian leadership to take heed of the advice of the great K M Pannikar on the political importance of the Indian Ocean and especially Trincomalee to India.
    It is important to also note what Barry Desker Director IDSS stated: ”The emergence of new powers like China and India is expected to transform the regional strategic landscape in a fashion that could be as dramatic as the rise of Germany in the 19th. Century and the United States in the in the 20th. century” .Bensen

  • 1

    Atlast woken up from deep slumber form 1987. Good. Simple solution, empower TN militarily, we can handle them well.

  • 1

    Russian Missiles were about to be installed in Cuba. USA said take it away or face a war. Russia took it away. But they are still nagging Europe. Bullies never stop, even on their demise.

    China occupies Indian northern boarders. Infiltrate more, regularly. Pakistan has the Cashmere. India needed a good defense plan. Unfortunately, by lust for white skin by the Narayan, Shiv Sankar, Hari Haren like official ill advised Sonia and let the China grip Lanka.

    In politics and international relations only two positions. Superior or inferior. Dictate or Listen. Lanka did not like to listen. It wanted dictate. Indian white skin lust advises kept saying they are winning on the middle ground with Lanka. In fact, just to fill up their pockets, these guys like Hari Haren, pretended like they had invented a new third one. Now only one position left, no two. Listen to Lanka through China through Lanka. That is listen to China.

    Indian navy, under Sonia’s command handed over many Tamil fishermen. More than a thousand murdered. Now more are kept to ISIL like style for “Cherachetham” (cutting off of head) to force India surrender.

    Again we can look at America. They did not give up when the ISIL kidnapped American and threatened to cut off their head otherwise America withdraw from Middle East. America take its path. So far has not surrendered.

    For pocket money from a Sonia like women, its customary in India for official like Hari Haren, Narayan Shiv Shankar…. But not for American. China will never ever go out of Lanka any more. When UNP comes, taking over will be slower phase. But never will be reversed. Now, how Russia is bother Europe from the air, China will be keeping India under control from, Air, Land and see.

  • 1

    Last thing we need is another Indian in our country telling some lies. We know what the IPKF did to the Tamil civilians. Though I hate the LTTE, in this occasion I need to praise them for what they did to the IPKF. How many people did these barbarians from north of us rape, murder, molest? Sick buggers, the damn Punjabi regiment full of rapists raped so many innocent Tamil women in the north, murdered so many others. Dirty scoundrels can rot in hell. I was not there when this all happened. But few of my old friends who were there during this time in Jaffna told me the amount of atrocities these low class buggers committed in the north. They said, the IPKF will make the SLA/LTTE look like angels. That is how bad they were.

    • 1

      Tamil from the north

      “Last thing we need is another Indian in our country telling some lies. We know what the IPKF did to the Tamil civilians.”

      It is interesting that you have given up on mother India, umbilical relations in Tamil Nadu, “our Leader” Prabaharan, Pongu Thamil, Pulippadai, …. Tamilnet, …….

      Is there anything else that you trust?

      • 1

        Hey Native Vedda, you scoundrel always sitting in a dark room copying and pasting other people’s comments and adding your nonsense to that. Why don’t you go out sometime and see the world. Do you really think all Tamils supported this Tamil Nadu crap, LTTE, Pongu Thamil and that nonsense, which happens to be an imagination of many to entertain idiots like you? Tamilnet!! is this what you get your sources from? a pro-LTTE website? Prabaharan was a leader for buggers like you, now it is time for you to simply disappear into oblivion, so move along you bloody loser. You stupid moron. Take what I said and shove it……you know where.

  • 0

    Does China have a say in the forthcoming PE? All the funds required,
    including that to buy M.PP and bribe SB Voters WILL be met by China,
    under cover of Development Contracts of all sorts. In other words future tax-payers money is going to be used for PE. Nothing can be done by the opposition, UNLESS all SB Voters are EDUCATED to take a
    one and only FINAL correct decision this time. Will they????

  • 0

    Panikkar’s Doctrine was given expression in a different time and era in an attempt to keep the Indian Ocean region within India’s total sphere of influence. Once poor China has since emerged as, arguably, the 2nd largest global power in terms of individual countries (does not include NATO)justifying the 16th century French Clairvoyant Nostradamus’s prediction when the now sleeping China wakes up the world will tremble.

    Beijing is flexing its muscles, not necessarily war-like, but to announce to this region and the world they have “arrived” in the global scene. All India can do is to let out a harmless squeak or two – nothing more. China is unlikely to compromise on its ambitious String of Pearls. Beijing will continue to stamp her authority in Sri Lankan soil albeit with some degree of finesse. That Watch Tower of an Indian Mission in the most unlikely of places – the Southern hinterland of Hambantota – is only for propaganda purposes and India’s way of showing Sri Lanka it (India) is not going to be pushed around.

    The best all of us Lankans can hope for is that there is no global conflict in the near future that may suck us into a major issue.
    If it does, as the saying goes – when Elephants collide ants and the grass inevitably comes to grief.

    R. Varathan

  • 1

    China is not peaceful partner in trades. Their game is showing the tail for snake and face for the fish. China forcefully took Nooraichchoolai. Royal government gave the rest without fight, knowing they can not win that war. We all show what happened to Apple Hospital. This was story with Indian Motor Companies. James Packer lost even after Australia gave two free patrol boats. This indicate Lanka is not a easy negotiator.

    Many Japanese firms left China because of their bullying behavior. Vietnam making friendship to drill in their sea. It did not work. Philippines trying to hold on to their resources. China does not allow. Hong Kong is swallowed. Taiwan is a frog in the mouth of a snake. China did not gain competitive bidding on Middle east and Africa contracts. All are bribe. We all know Lanka petroleum corporation’s story. 1.1 $B German company quoted as the lowest. 1.5$B American Company as most desirable tender quote. China quoted 2.$B and got it. India may need China. But not the other way. China fooling India only to keep Western forces out of Lanka. Other than that, it is even blocking the rivers that is coming to India from its mountains. It does not care a damn about India.

    Many western companies have returning from China. On the manufacturing side, they see cost balance in America. China turning out to be the world’s most bullying and trading partner.

  • 0

    First of all I must say I am no fan of the Rajapaksas Mafia rule.

    However when it comes to partnerships we have had very little benifit from our traditional friendship with India. India until recent times have had a mamoth corrupt beaureacracy that slowed progress to a snails pace. The political outlook leant more towards the left and played along the age old cast creed and language issues. The industries were moribund and production on penny pinching mentality. Sri Lanka got very economic benifit being closely associated with India. Neither investments nor technology flowed our way.

    China on the other hand are moving foward at break neck speed since the economic liberation by Deng Xiao Ping. Sri Lanka has already benifited (though most of the benifit snaked its way into the Rajapaksa Mafia family coffers) by our recent closer relationship with China. I think all future administrations sans corruption can bring more benifits for the people of Sri Lanka with an alliance with China rather than with India.

  • 0

    Hariharan sees the issue less security demanding than Austin Fernando. He should read Fernando in: http://www.ninjacloak.com/index.php/1010110A/26ff687e7fbc511617b53f638691c986aaa35867f21142d3d833d2fc93d2a92326654be3363d8b3aa6f07355e8773bbbeffca9cc00401b53c8f3dd62630c465c8461a98519a5506b900707d38921930
    Hariharan may not be aware that with the blessings of Sri Lankan Government dignitaries like all powerful Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabral and even retired senior officials like Nihal Rodrigo (Sri Lankan Ambassador to China and Foreign Secretary) and Sarala Fernando who had been Ambassador elsewhere, Chinese conduct seminars on the Maritime Silk Road where brainwashing Sri Lankans takes place in addition to bribing the Sri Lanka leaders.

  • 1

    Jawans won’t be mounting old MIGs ,to drop Dhall on our Dalits ever again….

    • 1

      K.A Sumanasekera

      “Jawans won’t be mounting old MIGs,”

      They would if they see an opening, an opportunity to mount your female inhabitants.

      Poor woman folks, their men folks will be rushing to hide themselves behind their women folks from Chappatti flour bags, dropped from

      Ilyushin Il-76 Candid,
      C-130J Super Hercules,
      Ilyushin Il-78 MKI,… escorted by

      Sukhoi Su-30MKI,
      HAL Tejas,
      Dassault Mirage 2000,

      My Elders tell me last time around when Hindians mounted Operation Poomalai on 4 June 1987 they flew 5 Antanov 32s (loaded with sacks full of Parripu and Chappatti flour) escorted by five Mirage 2000s.

      If that happens be a man kick the Hindian’s with all purpose Mahawamsa. I will be right behind you.

      Be a man.

      • 1

        Dear Native,

        It was just last month that the.Pakis kicked Jawan butts big time in Kashmir.

        And Mr Modi kept mum, even without a hum.

        You think the Hindians will dare cross the 21 Century Silk Route in their dilapidated MIGs and Mirages , unless Modi and his Brahamin Hariharans want a nuclear bath.

        • 1

          K.A Sumanasekera

          “It was just last month that the.Pakis kicked Jawan butts big time in Kashmir.”

          You should be celebrating the fact that about 25 years ago your Demela brethren VP with his podians army not only kicked Hindian army backed to whence they came but threw a tiger safety net to protect the Sinhala/Buddhists armed forces, while they were hiding behind their women folks.

          Next time around there won’t be a Sinhala/Buddhist army to fight the Invading Hindians. You know why, Hindians will blow up their Koodankulam and Chennai nuclear power stations to obliterate this island.

          Chinese nuclear submarines do not have the capacity to house 20 million stupid inhabitants.

          There are similarities among Hindian and Sinhala/Buddhists strategic thinking(?)

          Sinhala/Buddhists armed forces won’t fight, stop and reverse Hindian invasions.

          However Sinhala/Buddhist armed forces fight and kill their own mostly innocent people (from 5th April 1971 to date).

          Hindian armed forces won’t fight, stop and reverse Chinese and Pakistani invasions.

          However they behave exactly like the Sinhala/Buddhist armed forces fight and kill their own mostly innocent people.

          How cool is that?

          Hindian and Sinhla/Buddhist armed forces chose not to fight their formidable enemies but love to boast/gloat their battlefield victories, winning the most feeble of their opponents.

          How cool is that?

  • 1

    Sri Lanka is smarter than India.

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