The Sri Lankan Silk Road: The Potential War between China and the United States

By Mendis, Patrick | Harvard International Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Sri Lankan Silk Road: The Potential War between China and the United States


Mendis, Patrick, Harvard International Review


Sri Lanka, the "pearl" of the Indian Ocean, is strategically located within the east-west international shipping passageway. Like the old Silk Road that stretched from the ancient Chinese capital of Xian all the way to ancient Rome, modern China's strategic and commercial supply line extends over the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea to include the focal transit port of Sri Lanka at the southern tip of India. Today, over 85 percent of China's energy imports from the Middle East and mineral resources from Africa transit through Sri Lanka and other so-called "string of pearls" ports. Beijing seeks to protect these "pearls" as strategic economic arteries anchored all the way from the Persian Gulf and African waters to Hong Kong. Colonel Christopher Pehrson at the US Army War College describes this elaborate network as:

  "The manifestation of China's rising geopolitical influence
  through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields,
  develop special diplomatic relationships, and modernize
  military forces that extend from the South China Sea
  through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean,
  and on to the Arabian Gulf."

To meet increasing demand for resources and to secure their maritime trading routes through the Indian Ocean, China has either built or reportedly planned to construct vital facilities in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. In addition to these projects, China has reportedly been exploring the expansion and establishment of other facilities at eastern and western maritime choking ports of the Indian Ocean--the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea as well as the Strait of Malacca--to address growing piracy issues, especially around Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Sri Lanka, the "crown jewel" of Beijing's naval strategy, will soon have the over US$100 million Chinese-built Lotus Tower in Colombo--the highest edifice in South Asia and the nineteenth tallest building in the world--that can reportedly be seen from New Delhi. The Buddhist-inspired (through the Lotus Sutra), soaring telecommunication tower symbolizes not only Beijing's foreign policy slogan of "Peaceful Rising," but also projects an aura of power radiating from the former Middle Kingdom. Suddenly awakened to this reality, the United States and a "string of pearl"--encircled India are increasingly worried about the Chinese adventure in subtlety and its possibly concealed intentions for the Indian Ocean.

The Nervous Neighbor and the Assertive Visitor

One main cause of grave concern for Delhi and Washington is the construction of a billion dollar all-inclusive deepwater sea port at Hambantota--a small fishing village of 21,000 people on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. In exchange of generous financial, military, and diplomatic support to Sri Lanka, China has now begun to reap the benefits of its strategic investment on the island by using the sea port as a refuelling and docking station for the Chinese Navy and commercial shipments. Hambantota is also one of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's constituencies and is represented by his 25-year-old son Kamal in parliament--an implicit but masterful move to advance a political dynasty in Sri Lanka through an extensive network of family members who now govern the island and foreign diplomacy. It is a strategy famously dubbed the "Colombo Consensus" by the Economist magazine in London.

Critics have also pointed out that China has financed a comprehensive array of other infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including an oil-storage facility, a new airport, a coal-fired power plant, and an expressway, all of which are reportedly negotiated and managed by Rajapaksa family members. With cheap commercial credit and imported Chinese labor, Beijing also builds main roads and public buildings in the war-damaged northern and eastern regions, and constructs a modern performance arts center in Colombo. …

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