mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
The Maritime Silk Road
China’s Sri Lanka Play

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.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Corlyss

    “China is making nice with Sri Lanka in order to have a place to set up naval bases and resupply ports for its future in the Indian Ocean region.”
    The war with the Tamils was wrapped up PDQ once the Chinese decided they wanted to build there.

    • FriendlyGoat

      “Decisive and unequivocal victory” is a concept of which nearly anyone now disapproves in a worldwide-communication age and a nuclear age—–except maybe in response to specific outright attacks from state or non-state actors. We might imagine ourselves able to somehow vanquish China, Russia, North Korea and a passel of Islamic places all at once, but we aren’t. So don’t we need to adjust our talk accordingly for benefit of people who may not realize that WWII is over and not repeatable?

      • Corlyss

        ” “Decisive and unequivocal victory” is a concept of which nearly anyone now disapproves ”

        I know. But that doesn’t make it less effective. It just shows the same kind of blinders that folks developed at the end of WW1 – all that blather about commercial ties, and globalism, and the horrors of war, and of course the risen consciousness of all the right-thinking people. But you will recall that all that didn’t amount to a hill of beans when rogue stated revived the idea of might makes right. The only thing nukes did for the subject is to make war relatively more consequential for the people who engaged in it. It might control some actors but it doesn’t control everyone. A “deterent” you can’t use ever for fear of opprobrium (if you’re a western nation) is a weapon that doesn’t exist. In the end, if it must be used, it will be used, period. Nations or actors might forego it because of ambiguous information (i.e., like the 1983 incident that some Russian officer had sense enough to wait for data confirmation before launching nukes at the US), but where certainty exists, the weapon will be used. The right-thinking people, if they aren’t obliterated in the exchange, will all wring their hands and denounce the actors, but that just means they are alive to pass judgment.

        “So don’t we need to adjust our talk accordingly for benefit of people who may not realize that WWII is over and not repeatable?”
        WW2 is over, but the chaos of which it is a symptom is easily repeatable. That’s why the US took on the role of guarantor of the International System at it’s end. Everything you and I know, the peace, the quiet, the ability to waste trillions of dollars on safety nets and consumer goods and sports and competition in defense industries and partnering with other nations in producing defense equipment and all our other favorite pastimes – all that is the result of the Pax Americana. We don’t know what the world will be like without the American shield protecting us all, even the feckless Europeans and the sagging Japanese and the obstreperous failed states on our southern border. We’re going to find out if Obama and Rand Paul get their way. I hate hypotheticals, so you have an out if you want to refuse to discuss one, but seriously, do you think if one of those crazy Muslim countries with a nuke decides to attack America, which is what many of them would love to do, that we’re just going to say, “Now, that wasn’t very nice, was it? We’re going to slap sanctions on you until you learn that such behavior is unacceptable in the 21st Century and that you are only hurting yourself?” Check out Victor Davis Hanson’s Culture and Carnage. The West, once aroused, fights to the extermination of the opponent, or at least to the extermination of their ability to fight. I think that’s a splendid strategy myself. The problem today is too many boneheads and lazy thinkers don’t understand realpolitik or the fact that nations are not people bound by a system of etiquette, which puts the other guy’s interests ahead of one’s own.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Your hypothetical of a Muslim detonating a nuke is one of the greatest risks faced by the world. Although we parse our “rationality” of the M.A.D. theory, some of them (mostly those not actually in power) do not. And ISIL has demonstrated what can be stolen or commandeered from a country. This is a problem.

          But we still cannot reasonably expect ourselves to contain China AND North Korea AND Putin AND Islam purely on the will of our “stones”. As much as the UN can be awkward, we are better off with it than without it.

          • Corlyss

            Well, I’m not sure the world is at risk from Muslim nukes. India and Israel certainly are, and to the extent that India is the world’s largest democracy and likely to be a dominant nation in the coming continent in this century, and to the extent that we have close ties to and economic interests in the success of both nations, American interests are at risk if not American soil. Asian Muslims hell-bent on using nukes if they have the freedom to do so are not going to be “contained” like the Soviet Union was because they are not amenable to the same appeals. Their thought processes are a lot more primitive and tribal than the Russians, who were still a Christian Western nation and shared a lot of western values. The middle east/asian Muslims do not, as we have seen.

            We are unlikely to have to deal with all the bad guys at once. We can see from the response China had to the first gulf war the sobering recalculation they went thru just because the US crushed Iraq’s army. China substituted North Korean nuclear proliferation to encircle American oil and trade and naval interests in the region. Iran similarly stopped enriching uranium in 2003 when they thought they were next on our list after Iraq. Only the administration lost its nerve and lacked the military assets to drive home our superiority.

            I don’t want to divert us from the central discussion but how are we better off with the UN? That’s a trendy liberal/elite assumption as if any other thought is heresy. What does it do for the US, other than window dressing, which by definition is insubstantial? Multilateralism is a popular, seemingly “democratic” affectation in the Pax Americana world which means one of two things: America does whatever needs to be done alone with a blessing from some organization without accountability or relevance to Americans or American substantive interests; or America does whatever needs to be done alone without that blessing. The UN thinks of America as both its military and its bank. We are neither and the sooner everyone gets that, we’ll be a lot better off. The best one can say about the UN is it is irrelevant.

            If you get 40 min you can spare, listen to this interview with Bret Stephens on his new book. It’s a fast pithy history of American foreign policy models in the 20th Century and why action may be controversial but necessary, particularly his discussion of multipolarity and liberal peace.


            If you have another 55 min to spare, here’s Robert Kaplan’s March 2000 C-SPAN talk on his book The Coming Anarchy. Keeping in mind this is before his alarm in his article on Afpakia in Sept 2000 and a pre-9/11 analysis, you’ll hear a lot of things that should sound very familiar in terms of locations giving us a lot of trouble now.


            In his later book Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, he argues cogently for the necessity of leaders to develop a sense of the tragic, of what could go wrong, something that has been lacking from Utopian Democratic politicians since the Kennedy administration. Indeed, it may be another of those Boomer failings I love to natter on about.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service