In China’s Indian Ocean strategy, relations with Sri Lanka are proving to be its greatest asset. China’s plan to establish a “maritime silk road” across the region requires that Beijing can maintain a constant naval presence. Given Sri Lanka’s regionally central location, it stands to offer crucial help to China, and in some ways it already is. An excellent essay in East Asia Forum describes the path the relationship has been taking:
A sea change is occurring in Sri Lanka’s strategic orientation. Recent developments suggest that Sri Lanka is becoming China’s new best friend and security partner in the eastern Indian Ocean. This would represent a major change in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and could have significant consequences for regional security.The immediate cause célèbre is the visit of a Chinese submarine and announcement of a new Chinese-built port in Colombo in September, followed by another visit in early November. A third is rumoured for later this month. These are no ordinary naval visits: their nature, frequency and timing are extraordinary. The first occurred during state visits by Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Claims by Beijing that its nuclear-powered attack submarine is on deployment against Somali pirates are risible. Despite Colombo’s initial attempts at secrecy, the visits seem to be a deliberate signal by China that it intends to maintain a submarine presence in the Indian Ocean and that Sri Lanka will play an important role that strategy. […]
Going forward, the signals from Sri Lanka are that Colombo is open to Beijing’s woo. Some plans are already in place:
There have been increasing indications over the last six months of Sri Lanka’s willingness to host Chinese military-related facilities. It was recently revealed that China will take over management of a new and enlarged Phase II Hambantota port with berths dedicated for Chinese use. In July the government also revealed it intended to establish a Chinese-run aircraft maintenance facility near Trincomalee, ostensibly to support Sri Lanka’s air force. After strong protests from Delhi, the government may establish this facility in another location, perhaps next to Hambantota port.
China’s ability to establish a base of operation in the Indian Ocean could be a major factor in the balance of power in Asia going forward. China’s aggressiveness and its larger quest for regional hegemony have for a while now been driving its opponents together, and the most important relationship among those opponents is that between India and Japan. They will not accept a major Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific happily.