19 May, 2022


When Elephants Jostle Grass Is Hurt!

By Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

These days for Sri Lanka, India and China there are two major issues in public domain. They are the Chinese submarines docking in Colombo and the Chinese initiation- 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Submarine issues are directly related to military actions. Military actions are not static and move even to other arenas. Both these issues have developed over time in China and are a consequence of a process.

This article will emphasize on the submarine issues with limited reference to the MSR, the writer hoping to deal with the MSR later.

Submarine related issues

Recently the submarine issue emerged twice. The first was docking a submarine in Colombo (September 7th-13th) immediately before the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Sri Lankan visit. This stirred the Indians and Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa reportedly met the Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley, which was speculatively referred, as an event to clarify the mid-September Chinese submarine docking among other things, i.e. procurements and bilateral defense ties.

However, last year when an Iranian submarine and two ships docked in Colombo there were no expressions of Indian fears! It is due to international relations. Meanwhile, Minister Priyadarshana Yapa has stated that the government will not talk with India regarding the presence of Chinese submarines in Colombo. Is it a ‘full-stop’? Does this match the boasted friendly relations between the two countries?

Nevertheless, after Defense Secretary, the Navy Commander Admiral Jayantha Perera visited India and tried to allay Indian fears on alleged ‘increasing Chinese military presence’ here and assured that Sri Lanka will “never compromise on India’s national security.” The Admiral confirmed the Chinese visits were goodwill visits (enjoyed even by Indians). Indians would not have bought it even with Admiral Perera’s confessed ‘personal friendship’ with India.

Such Indian disbelief would have been endorsed as correct by exposures that Submarine Changzheng-2 and warship Chang Xing Dao arrived in Colombo on 31st October to leave on 5th November.

Another Sri Lankan response came from Navy Spokesperson admitting such docking, reasoning it for refueling and crew-refreshment. Chinese Defense Ministry tallying the Sri Lankan stance said the two submarine visits were for refueling and crew-refreshment. Also the movement was explained as “for anti-piracy escort missions” in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia. Indians said that submarines have little role to play in anti-piracy missions. Yet this week Admiral Perera reiterated this purpose.

China’s naval profile in the Indian Ocean will undoubtedly continue to grow. Is Delhi suspecting that Sri Lanka is to open a Chinese submarine base? I doubt it is the intention of China or Sri Lanka, where China stations military personnel, weapons and other equipment for combat operations.

Most likely place for a larger dual facility port for the Chinese could be Karachchi- not Colombo- due to mutually shared strategic interest of being anti-Indian, longstanding bilateral military cooperation, the transfer of Chinese naval equipment and the availability of repair and maintenance facilities in Karachchi. Hence, should India suspect Sri Lanka to be another dual facility, when other bondages stand against Sri Lanka due to the 1987 Accord?

However, like China who spreads her wings, India also recognizes the importance of sea lines of communication beyond its geographical proximity. Chaturvedi quotes India’s former Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai saying “The entire Indian Ocean region stretching from East African coast to the South China Sea remains crucial to our (Indian) foreign trade, energy and national security interests”. One may argue “What is wrong in China thinking similarly for her advantage?” Perhaps, Indians may want to retain the vast water mass as ‘Indian Ocean’ and not ‘Chinese Ocean’!

Now China has progressively accessed across the Indian Ocean littoral (including Colombo, Karachchi, Seychelles etc) engaging in anti-piracy ‘far sea operations’. The Chinese String of Pearls concept was often viewed a military initiative, with the aim of providing China’s navy access to a series of ports stretching from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea. This has caused some consternation in India, which sees itself as being encircled. The new MSR promotes China’s strategy of investing in maritime infrastructure in ASEAN and further west.  This is why I consider Chinese as executing a process- step by step.

However, given India’s security problems with China in the northern-frontiers (also queried by PM Modi from President Xi), it will be extremely sensitive to India to observe active Chinese naval presence on its southern maritime frontiers. When the “respondents” in unison say that Chinese naval presence in Sri Lanka is routine, it indirectly infers that India should live with it or derogatorily ‘mind its business’! It is too much to gulp for the South Block. Hence, nipping the problem in the bud may be the Indian approach. In that event even if Sri Lanka does not wish to talk to India (re: Minister Yapa), will Sri Lanka be stubborn not to talk if India conveys her concerns?  Good diplomacy compulsorily warrants talking.

Other reasons for Indian provocation

Were the Indian provocations limited to the submarine affair?

Gauging it as a nuclear submarine may be a core issue. If Indians regularly seek permission to dock nuclear or other submarines in Colombo Port it may be an embarrassing test for Sri Lanka especially in the background of the ongoing Chinese port development and other infrastructure projects with Chinese financing.  Such could be projected as futuristic Indian knotty manipulations originating from Delhi-wallahs!

Another provocative issue would have been the allocation of four berths at Magampura Port for Chinese management in exchange to the Chinese adjusting favorable loan conditions to Sri Lanka. However, it is an internal matter for Sri Lanka, will be the Lankan argument.

In addition Indians would have been concerned on the “defense related development” project in Trincomalee by the Chinese on 1, 200 acres of long – leased lands given by the government. It could also affect Sampur coal power plant with Indian investment. This allegation was denied by the government. However, Indians would be suspicious of everyone when hostile attitudes emerge.

Previously there were reports that the Chinese were supporting the Sri Lankan military to develop military cantonments in the northern part of the country. It could have been a provocative action for Delhi who would be aware of high technology advances of Chinese intelligence cadres who could potentially spy on South India.

Even the Chinese fishing under Sri Lankan flag would have created suspicion on Sri Lanka in Indian eyes. It was so when the LTTE suspected and attacked Chinese fishing vessels during the conflict suspecting eavesdropping on Tigers.

Basically, when the Chinese have acquired military/ intelligence strengths on all four sides of Sri Lanka Indians’ worries are justified. Therefore, pacification will be important.

Chinese Submarines and potential impacts

However, Chinese submarine movements were exhibiting Chinese military power. Commentator Jeremy Page quoted a last December Sunday meeting, where Chinese Defense Ministry (CDM) surprised several Military Attachés declaring that a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine would soon pass through the Strait of Malacca. Two days later, a Chinese attack Submarine slipped through the Strait and disappeared. It resurfaced near Sri Lanka and then in the Persian Gulf, before returning through the Strait in February—the first known Chinese submarine voyage to the Indian Ocean

Page added that the clear message was China had fulfilled its four-decade quest to join the elite club of countries with nuclear-submarines. Again CDM summoned Attachés to disclose another Chinese submarine deployment to the Indian Ocean in September—a diesel-powered submarine, which stopped off in Sri Lanka. This must be the first questionable submarine (not nuclear) that sent unpleasant, disturbed shrills in Delhi. He further commented that the expanding undersea fleet bolsters China’s nuclear arsenal and  enhances the country’s capacity to enforce its territorial claims and thwart U.S. intervention.” This is complex politics because nuclear submarines are more strategically potent weapons.

“China is expected to pass another milestone this year when setting a “boomer” submarine to sea, carrying fully armed nuclear missiles for the first time”, says the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence. Chinese nuclear submarine’s nonstop Indian Ocean voyage was striking, proving their endurance to reach the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s headquarters in Hawaii. It proves my contention of an ongoing Chinese process. Will this be happy omen to the Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet?

Under this circumstance will India get closer to the US, as both can expect trouble from this Chinese process? One should not discount it because already the US and India conduct serious dialogues on military cooperation, production / joint ventures/ sales/ transfer of military technology etc. I presume Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam must be following the events at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington to understand such complex developments.

Will such “cooperation” between India and the US limit to military alone or extend to other arenas concerning Sri Lanka, e.g. UNHRC actions? Will Sri Lanka face bitter situations due to these issues?

Rajeev Gandhi- JR Jayewardene Accord- 1987

I think Indian South Block must be holding to the chest the Rajeev Gandhi- JR Jayewardene Accord- 1987 in pressing Indian concerns. In summary it said:

(a)  Sri Lanka and India reaffirm not to allow respective territories to be used for activities prejudicial to each other’s unity, territorial integrity and security.

(b)  The two countries were to reach an early understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel

(c)  All Sri Lankan ports will not be available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.

(d)  The work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee oil tank farm will be undertaken as an Indian and Sri Lankan joint venture.

(e)  Sri Lanka’s agreements with foreign broadcasting organizations will be reviewed to ensure that they would be used solely as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes.

Excepting (d) above all others are related to military issues. South Block may argue / interpret that docking Chinese submarines will ensure “employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view” to affect Indian security, give access to the Chinese “in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests”, jeopardize “restoring and operating the Trincomalee oil tank farm” and even promote discreet operations of foreign broadcasting organizations detrimental to India- militarily and even politically.

Concurrently, one may argue that Sri Lanka has a sovereign right to accommodate each other’s naval ships- and why not submarines. The hitch I see is the restriction placed on Sri Lanka by the earlier quoted agreement.

Arguments based on this Accord are vilified by some who thought such agreement was invalid, as the other provisions/ conditions in the agreement had not been achieved as promised by Indians and hence demanding execution of this alone should be ignored. It is a matter requiring arbitration. If the agreement is nonexistent the status will change. Are we heading towards such threshold, reflected in the frequency of Chinese warships and submarines docking in Colombo, ignoring Indian protests and upholding abrasive responses by China and Sri Lanka?

China’s Grand Strategy (GS)

Submarines are not isolated interventions in dealing with China. China has a ‘plan of action’  identified as the “Grand Strategy” –i.e. “country’s broadest approach to the pursuit of its national objectives in the international system, providing an understanding of its long-term foreign and security policy goals” – which is elaborated as follows:

  • Acquire “comprehensive national power” essential to achieve the “greatest global power” status.
  • Gain access to global natural resources, raw materials, and overseas markets to sustain China’s economic expansion;
  • Pursue “three Ms”: military build-up (including a naval presence along the vital sea lanes of communication and maritime chokepoints), multilateralism, and multipolarity; and
  • Build a worldwide network of friends and allies through “soft power” diplomacy, trade and economic dependencies via free trade agreements, mutual security pacts, intelligence cooperation, and arm sales.

The GS covers every major area for a strong Nation as seen in the above elaboration. China has actively applied (“intersected”) the GS on Sri Lanka proving what Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, South Asia expert, noted, “In decisions on foreign infrastructural aid, economic, political, strategic and geographical concerns intersect. The infrastructure of access is also “dual-use”: depending on its location and specifications, it can be an instrument of economic development or a tool of internal security or external defense”.

The large infrastructure investments, trading facilitation, quick approvals for a Free Trade Agreement, diplomatic support at international fora (e.g. UN), military support during the conflict etc are good examples to quote for Chinese “intersecting” in Sri Lanka. Even with India, President Xi promised investments running to billions of dollars. This is GS in active operation. In this background one cannot keep submarines, GS and MSR as isolated concepts.

Chinese soft-power diplomacy 

The GS and MSR concept based approaches are not military power games, because both follow parallel political relationship building, without military handlers.

For instance when the Chinese President Xi Jinping met Maldivians mid-September he obtained approval for the MSR and incorporated in the Mutual Agreement: “ ‏The Maldives welcomes and supports the proposal put forward by China ‎to build the 21st Century MSR and is prepared to actively ‎participate in relevant cooperation. The two sides agreed to enhance ‎cooperation in other areas, such as marine, economy, and security.‎” Adding “cooperation in other areas” is not a surprise as Maldives face large economic problems, and China is a very generous “giver.”

New Indian Express reported that Luan Jianzhang, Deputy Director General of Policy Research Office has pointed out that the ‘MSR’ initiative “was a strategic economic project” and added “We don’t want to get into India’s sphere.” He denied that there was any security element, “for now.” I may mark “for now”, but not another day!

Concurrently, Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli met with Singaporean, Cambodian PMs, Vic-Presidents of Laos and Myanmar, Deputy PMs cum Foreign Ministers of Thailand and Vietnam, who attended the 11th China-ASEAN Expo. And, among many other development supports pledged Gaoli saw to it that the “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” principle was agreed by them.

When in Sri Lanka President Xi Jinping succeeded in committing Sri Lanka to an array of economy boosting agreements and obtained commitment also for the MSR. This was endorsing a commitment made to the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry by the External Affairs Minister GL Peiris in mid February 2014 to “fully expand maritime cooperation and jointly build the 21st Century MSR.” When the West is purportedly squeezing Sri Lanka, re-endorsing it also cannot be a surprise, though Delhi would have shaken somewhat, as India was preparing the Project Mausam, to respond to MSR.


Above proves that China has worked on a long process changing name tags, technology, diplomacy,  using the economic clout generated during recent times, aimed to reach the “greatest global power” target. This development has likely shaken India and even the US may have reasons to be bothered of China, and Sri Lankan attitudes towards China. If unmatched the Chinese pace of movement will accelerate.

Nevertheless, we live in a complex world where economy or politics or diplomacy or military acts do not operate in isolation and tagging extraneous additives to any of these is possible to the detriment or favor of a nation. Therefore, it is important that we remind that we need all international powers and act diplomatically and cautiously.  In that we may always remember the Swahili proverb “When two elephants jostle, that which is hurt is the grass.”

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Latest comments

  • 1

    “When two elephants jostle, that which is hurt is the grass.” is just a mild way of putting the mess SL is getting into.

    Sinhalese, in their relentless mission to skin Tamils alive, revere MR for having enlisted China to rebuff India, over its demands to uphold 13A and devolve power to Tamils. Little do they realise the long-term impact our nation faces.

    Sinhalese may rejoice that MR has dwarfed India by enlisting the dragon to do the job for us. China, smooth as silk, operating on its own agenda has readily obliged.

    The sequence is by no means over. In fact, it is just the beginning.

  • 0

    It struck my mind, another point.

    The visit of the Iranian submarines was not a concern for India, but the visit of a Chinese – submarine just before the Chinese president’s visit was a concern to India.

    Who knows what else was involved in that.

    So, the visit of the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary to meet Indian Defence minister may be just part of intelligence information gathering at the highest level. It is said, lot of Indian politicians are far more than pro-western and they provide information.

    • 1

      Silly Jim, don’t you know that Iran is no threat to India whereas China is constantly trying to transgress into Indian territory in the North East and North, claiming even Arunachal Pradesh as a part of Tibet?

      Sengodan. M

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