China wants to deepen military ties with Sri Lanka through training and the gift of a navy frigate, a Chinese official said this week, outlining the latest front in a battle for influence between Asia’s two most powerful countries.
Senior Colonel Xu Jianwei, an official at the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, said Beijing this year will continue offering training courses for the Sri Lankan military and will finish work on a Chinese-funded auditorium at the smaller country’s military academy. Preparations will also be made to give a frigate to the Sri Lankan navy as a gift.
“As a good and true friend, over the past decades, China has provided powerful support to the social-economic development and military and defense construction of Sri Lanka,” Xu said.
“In the past few years, two militaries have witnessed the deepening communication and cooperation in the areas of personnel training, joint training, maritime security, etc.,” he added.
Xu, speaking at an event to mark the 91st anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army, did not offer any details about the frigate, but it’s the latest exchange in Beijing and Colombo’s tight military relationship.
“It was China’s assistance to the Rajapaksa government during their military offensive against the Tamil Tigers in the late 2000s that opened the door to a major expansion of Chinese investments and influence in the country,” said Jeff Smith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where he focuses on South Asia.
That assistance came after the US ended direct military aid over Sri Lanka’s poor human-rights record, and it arrived in the form of political cover at the UN and of sophisticated military hardware, like six F7 fighter jets.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in office between 2005 and 2015, nutured ties with China, including a 2013 deal that saw Beijing provide $2.2 billion in funding and defense technology and military training.
Rajapaksa was criticized for debts his government took on from China, which also reportedly funded his most recent campaign, which he lost to current President Maithripala Sirisena.
Upon taking office, Sirisena suspended most of the Chinese-backed projects started by his predecessor. But his government remains heavily indebted to Beijing, and he has allowed some projects to resume and continued making deals for military equipment.
That China would now offer up a frigate as a gift isn’t really surprising, Smith said.
“Gifting a frigate to Sri Lanka can be seen as yet another attempt to curry favor with the government and military,” he said, pointing to the $295 million Beijing recently “gifted” to Sirisena “to use on a project of his choosing, even as [China] continues to enjoy close ties to the opposition, which is eyeing a political comeback.”
“It’s fairly standard practice in the region,” Smith said. “India frequently gifts used military hardware to neighboring countries.”
India has given Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan and patrol boats to its smaller neighbors. This sping, New Delhi reportedly caught its military by surprise with a request for a list of obsolete equipment that could be refurbished cheaply and given to “friendly” countries.
China’s presence in Sri Lanka has become more of a concern for India. Sri Lanka allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo in 2014 despite New Delhi’s concern. In May 2017, during a visit by India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sri Lanka said it had rejected another request for Chinese sub to visit.
Straining to repay debts incurred by Rajapaksa’s government, Sri Lanka decided in late 2017 to grant China control of the strategically valuable port of Hambantota for 99 years. That concession stoked concern in New Delhi that China would expand its military presence there.
The current Sri Lankan government has said it won’t allow a larger Chinese military presence there, as it is “cognizant of the furor it sparked in Delhi when Chinese submarines first surfaced in Colombo in 2014,” Smith said.
“It’s possible that calculation could change if the more China-friendly Rajapaksas return to power in elections next year,” he added, “but even they will be cautious about the backlash it could trigger in India and beyond.”
In June, Sri Lanka announced that it would move its southern naval command to Hambantota, though Colombo again stressed that it would not allow Beijing to use the port for military purposes.
‘A tectonic shift’
India’s security focus has undergone “a tectonic shift” toward its southern approaches in recent years, but its northern frontier, much of which is shared with China, remains a point of contention.
The two countries were locked in months-long standoff in summer 2017 over a small chunk of territory in the eastern Himalayas, where China accused India of violating the sovereignty of Bhutan. Amid that showdown, Chinese and Indian troops also came to blows in the western Himalayas, pelting each other with stones and rifle butts.
Heads have cooled since that standoff, and both sides have pulled troops from the border. But China signaled again this month that it’s looking to gain an edge over India with neighbors like Bhutan, which China has been courting for some time.
During a three-day trip to the small landlocked country – the first by a senior Chinese official since the border standoff – Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou said Beijing held their friendship in high regard and that China respected Bhutan’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The gift to Sri Lanka and the kind words in Bhutan “both serve to reinforce the broad trend of China attempting (mostly successfully) to expand its influence and presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean,” Smith said.