As Reported in Pentagon 2021report … Will Sri Lanka allow China an overseas military base?

As Reported in Pentagon 2021report … Will Sri Lanka allow China an overseas military base?

19 November 2021 11:58 am

The PRC’s military modernization objectives are commensurate with, and part of,Beijing’s broader national development aspirations. The PRC’s economic,technological,political,social,and security development efforts are mutually reinforcing and support Beijing’s strategy to shape international and regional environments that accept and facilitate Beijing’s interests.

In 2020, the PLA remained primarily oriented toward “safeguarding” it’s perceived “sovereignty and security” interests in the region, while emphasizing a greater global role for itself, such as through delivering COVID-19 aid abroad and the pursuit of overseas military facilities, in accordance with the PRC’s defence policy and military strategy.

PLA’s ground, naval, air and missile forces are increasingly capable of projecting power at greater distances from China and they are expanding the PLA’s capacity to contest the US military superiority in the event of a conflict. China will improve its military capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region covering Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as their energy sea route.

The Department of Defence (DoD) annual report to Congress on military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has referred that PRC is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure in Sri Lanka to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances. Beyond its base in Djibouti, the PRC is pursuing additional military facilities to support naval, air, ground, cyber, and space power projection. The PRC has likely considered a number of countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan in addition to Sri Lanka as locations for People LiberationArmy (PLA) facilities.

The PLA’s approach likely includes consideration of many different sites and outreach to many countries, but only some will advance to negotiations for an infrastructure agreement, status of forces or visiting forces agreement, and/or basing agreement. Critical organizations involved in planning and negotiating for military logistics facilities are the Central Military Commission (CMC) Joint Staff Department, CMC Logistic Support Department, and service headquarters. However, the PRC’s overseas military basing will be constrained by the willingness of potential host nations to support a PLA presence.

AMERICA - CHINA’S STRATEGIC COMPETITOR

The PRC has long viewed the United States as a competitor and has characterized its view of strategic competition in terms of a rivalry among powerful nation states, as well as a clash of opposing systems. As expressed in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, the PRC is the only competitor capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system. The PRC is increasingly clear in its ambitions and intentions. Beijing seeks to reshape the international order to better align with its authoritarian system and national interests, as a vital component of its strategy to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” According to this worldview, the accrual of the PRC’s comprehensive national power, including military power, is necessary to set the conditions for Beijing to assert its preferences on a global scale. This year’s annual report continues to chart the maturation of the PLA and the PRC’s evolving national power as it transitions to a new stage of the PRC’s national strategy.

CHINA, A WORLD CLASS MILITARY BY 2049

The PRC’s national strategy to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049 is deeply integrated with its ambitions to strengthen the PLA. In 2017, General Secretary Xi Jinping laid out two PLA modernization goals during his speech to the 19th Party Congress: to “basically complete” PLA modernization by 2035 and to transform the PLA into a “world class” military by 2049. Throughout 2020, the PLA continued to pursue its ambitious modernization objectives, refine major organizational reforms, and improve its combat readiness in line with those goals. This includes the PLA developing the capabilities to conduct joint long-range precision strikes across domains, increasingly sophisticated space, counter space, and cyber capabilities, and accelerating the large-scale expansion of its nuclear forces. In 2020, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced a new milestone for PLA modernization in 2027 broadly understood as the modernization of the PLA’s capabilities to be networked into a system of systems for “intelligentized” warfare.

CHINA’S DEFENCE POLICY AND MILITARY STRATEGY

The PRC has stated its defence policy aims to safeguard its sovereignty, security, and development interests. The PRC’s military strategy remains based on the concept of “active defense.”
The PRC’s leaders stress the imperative of strengthening the PLA into a “world-class” military by the end of 2049 as an essential element of its strategy to rejuvenate the PRC into a “great modern socialist country.” In 2020, the PLA added a new milestone for modernization in 2027, to accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization of the PRC’s armed forces, which if realized would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency. In November 2020, the CMC issued the “Chinese People’s Liberation Army Joint Operations Outline (trial) described as the “top-level law” of the PLA’s combat doctrine system in the “new era” that would strengthen the requirements and procedures for joint operations, combat support, national defense mobilization, and political work, among others.

In 2020, the PLA remained primarily oriented toward “safeguarding” it’s perceived “sovereignty and security” interests in the region, while emphasizing a greater global role for itself, such as through delivering COVID-19 aid abroad and the pursuit of overseas military facilities, in accordance with the PRC’s defence policy and military strategy.

CHINA MILITARY CAPABILITIES FOR GLOBAL POWER PROJECTION

The PRC continues to increase its military capabilities to achieve regional and global security objectives beyond a Taiwan, South China Sea, or Korea contingency. The PRC’s continuing improvements of air and ground-based missile strike capabilities enable other military assets to operate farther from China. The PRC’s continues to build a multi-carrier force. The PLA’s next generation of carriers will have greater endurance and a catapult system.
The PRC continues to increase its military capabilities to achieve regional and global security objectives beyond a Taiwan contingency. PLA’s ground, naval, air and missile forces are increasingly capable of projecting power at greater distances from China and they are expanding the PLA’s capacity to contest the US military superiority in the event of a conflict. China will improve its military capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region covering Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as their energy sea route.

CHINA’S FOREIGN POLICY

The China’s foreign policy seeks to build a “community of common destiny” that supports its strategy to realize “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Beijing’s revisionist ambition for the international order derives from the objectives of its national strategy and the Party’s political and governing systems.

In 2019, the PRC recognized that its armed forces should take a more active role in advancing its foreign policy, highlighting the increasingly global character that Beijing ascribes to its military power.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was a driving force behind the PRC’s foreign policy efforts, as Beijing sought to deflect any culpability for the virus and its initial spread, and to capitalize on its narrative of domestic success and foreign assistance. The PRC’s diplomatic activities continued seeking to carve a more prominent role for Beijing in international affairs. China has embraced a new diplomatic framework that it terms “Major Power Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics,” which is guided by the foreign policy direction determined by the CCP Central Committee and set forth in General Secretary Xi Jinping’s report at the 19th Party Congress. This framework seeks to advance the PRC’s strategy of national rejuvenation by achieving the CCP’s two centenary goals, improving the coordination of China’s major domestic and international policies, reforming aspects of the international order, adhering to the CCP Central Committee’s direction, and defending the PRC’s major interests.

CHINA’S ECONOMIC POLICY

The PRC’s military modernization objectives are commensurate with, and part of, Beijing’s broader national development aspirations. The PRC’s economic, technological, political, social, and security development efforts are mutually reinforcing and support Beijing’s strategy to shape international and regional environments that accept and facilitate Beijing’s interests.

The PRC’s economic development supports its military modernization not only by providing the means for larger defense budgets, but through deliberate Party-led initiatives such as Made in China 2025 and China Standards 2035, as well as the systemic benefits of the PRC’s growing national industrial and technological base. In the rollout of the PRC’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025), the Party announced a shift to a new “development pattern” of “dual circulation”. Dual circulation is focused on accelerating domestic consumption as a driver of economic growth, shifting to higher-end manufacturing, and creating “breakthroughs” in key technologies along critical high-end global supply chains, all while emphasizing “mutually reinforcing” foreign investment in these key technologies to provide the capital and technology necessary to advance domestic technological innovation in support of the PRC’s security and development objectives.

The PRC’s military modernization objectives are commensurate with and part of the PRC’s broader national development aspirations and work in coordination with Beijing’s economic policies and systems. Beijing gives priority to the PRC’s economic development as the “central task” and frames its economic system as the means of advancing the nation’s overall political and social modernity. In particular, the PRC’s economic statecraft focuses intensely on advancing what the Party calls the country’s “productive forces” (e.g., industry, technology, infrastructure, and human capital) which it views as the means to achieve the country’s political and social modernity—including building a “world-class” military. The PRC’s relentless efforts to grow and mature China’s national industrial and technological base has significant implications for the PRC’s military modernization, as well as for the PRC’s global economic partners.

ONE BELT, ONE ROAD (OBOR) INITIATIVE

Beijing uses OBOR to support its strategy of national rejuvenation by expanding global transportation and trade linkages, which are intended to support its development and deepen economic integration with nations along its periphery and beyond.

The PRC’s overseas development and security interests under OBOR will drive the PRC towards expanding its overseas military footprint to protect those interests.

First announced in 2013, the PRC’s OBOR initiative is a signature foreign and economic policy advanced by Xi Jinping. Beijing uses OBOR to support its strategy of national rejuvenation by seeking to expand global transportation and trade linkages to support its development and deepen its economic integration with nations along its periphery and beyond. The PRC implements OBOR by financing, constructing, and developing transportation infrastructure, natural gas pipelines, hydropower projects, digital connectivity, and technology and industrial parks worldwide. PRC leaders have touted the economic benefits of OBOR and invited foreign partners to join, promising wealth and prosperity to those nations that participate. Since its creation, as many as 140 countries have signed OBOR cooperation documents, up from 125 countries from last year. OBOR-related spending is difficult to estimate because there is no comprehensive list of projects. However, public reporting indicates a steady decline in OBOR lending since its estimated peak in 2016-2017.

In support of its national strategy, the PRC pursues a range of goals through OBOR to include strengthening its territorial integrity, increasing its energy security, and expanding its international influence. Sri Lanka is extremely important to China in terms of securing its energy sea route from Middle East.

CAN CHINA MATCH USA MILITARILY?

Currently, only the United States fulfills the criteria to be considered a superpower. However, despite China’s military buildup, the United States will maintain a substantial lead in key capacities, such as nuclear weapons, combat aircraft and aircraft carriers (see chart below).  

The China hawks now have the recent discovery of up to 250 missiles silos in China as the latest reason for a US military buildup. No one is quite sure what the Chinese plans are, but the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal is not new. Even with this ongoing buildup, the United States retains a huge superiority in nuclear warheads.   

While the Pentagon also espouses great power competition as a reason to boost US military spending, top military leaders concede that the United States remains far ahead of the Chinese in most military measures. Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley on the US militarily strength over China or Russia: Just to be clear and I reiterate it, neither China nor Russia militarily, nor any other country on the face of the Earth is better militarily than the United States military. Even if China expands its nuclear force, if we continued to fully modernize the triad, then the US nuclear strategic deterrent is fully adequate to deter any adversary to include China even if China doubled what they have right now with no question in my mind. He emphasized that a couple of things to consider: survivability, small, better dispersal. And submarines, by their nature, are extraordinarily survivable. They’re very lethal. And they are one of the significant asymmetric advantages that the United States has.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on US advantage with allies: We have something that China doesn’t have: we have allies and we have partners. And if you consider Australia, Japan, and Korea of the world, there’s tremendous capacity in our allies and partners. But we far and away exceed any capability that China would have in terms of partner or ally capability and we’re going to continue to strengthen what we have. He further states that America has the most powerful, dominant naval force on the face of the planet. It has been so in the past. It will remain so going forward.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday on US submarine advantage: So, if I start undersea, that’s our most survivable strike platform in the United States Navy, and arguably, in the US military is our underwater superiority over the Chinese. It will not be realistic for China to think of defeating USA Militarily.

United States vs. China Military Capability Comparison 2021: Advantage US 

CHINA’s ECONOMY AND MILITARY CAN OVERTAKE USA, BUT it WON’T BECOME GLOBAL SUPERPOWER

There is an ongoing discussion that China is emerging as a new superpower and replacing the US from the global power structure. China emerging strongly from the growing global economic crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic and Donald Trump’s ally-alienating policies within NATO for the last four years have pushed this narrative forward considerably. There is no doubt that China has already become the global powerhouse economically, and is expected to surpass the US as the world’s biggest economy by 2031, China is still behind but on its way to surpassing the US in military power with increased spending on weapons technology and developing several secretive weapons.

There is no doubt over China acquiring economic and military strength superior to the US sooner than later, but the question is, can the Communist Party-led China be ever as formidable and complete a superpower as the US has been for the last eight decades? When the Soviet Union competed with the US to claim superpower status during the Cold War period, it somewhat matched America’s strength in leading alliances and military power. However, at the height of its power, the Soviet Union was never a match for US domination economically or culturally.

Like the Soviet Union in the past, China now faces several geopolitical and cultural challenges before it can reach global superpower status similar to the US. China can’t aspire to get the same respect and acceptance worldwide, even if its economic and military power overtakes the US. A democratic US will always have ideological, political, and cultural superiority compared to a Communist China.

US STANDS FIRM

The US has been and will continue to be the global cultural superpower, and there is minimal possibility of China posing any serious challenge to that status. Not only does its democracy and freedom provide ideological superiority to the US, its cultural influence through movies, media, music, and literature also extends across the world. The US is a country of immigrants, and it represents and enriches the cultures and ideas of the world. But China has remained a ‘closed country’ for long. While English remains the world’s (Global) language, it is almost impossible to imagine Mandarin taking up that place. China will always be struggling to catch up to the US and take the lead position in the global power race. Like the Soviet Union, its superpower status will be limited and confined to certain aspects of it. The US has everything to hold its own long in this competition if it doesn’t often engage in self-sabotaging acts like it has in the last four years.

GEOGRAPHY, DEMOGRAPHY OF SL; LEARN FROM PAST MISTAKES

Sri Lanka is an island with a land mass of 65,610 Sq km. According to world fact book and other sources as of July 2020 Sri Lanka population was 22,889,201. About 74.9% of the Sri Lankan population is represented by Sinhalese and about 11.2% is Tamils, the majority of who live in the North and the East of the island and the rest is represented by few other communities (i.e. Sri Lanka moors 9.2%, Indian Tamil 4.2% and other 0.5%).  India with a population of over 1.3 billion people is the closest neighbour of Sri Lanka which has only a population of 22 million. However the Southern Indian Tamil population exceeds 60 million as against 3 million Tamils in Sri Lanka.  Proximity to Southern India and vast the Tamil population in those states is a very crucial factor in dealing with the subject of National security in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan political leadership and the Defence Authority should not forget the past that all the citizens of the island had to suffer from nearly three decades long civil war due to numerous reasons including politically mishandling of minority Tamils and antagonizing giant neighborhood and resulted in India sending a peace keeping force under Indo-Lanka Peace Agreement.

GEO STRATEGICAL, GEO POLITICAL IMPORTANCE INCLUDING SL’s ECONOMY 

“For imperialism, our part of the Indian Ocean is the gateway to the resources and markets in the Near East, Middle East, Africa and Asia”. Furthermore, Sri Lanka, located in the southern tip of India, lies at the crossroads of all maritime routes in the region (See Map). 

70% of the global oil trade and 50% of container traffic pass through the Indian Ocean. Today, this sea route is operational with 36,000 ships passing through Sri Lanka’s southern port of Hambantota annually, including 4,500 oil tankers. It was an economically booming region mainly due to the rapid development of two giants: India and China. However, due to Covid 19 world pandemic and political mismanagement over a period of time, at present, Sri Lanka has been re-classified as a lower middle income country by the World Bank as per capita income dropped amid real effective exchange rate and flexible inflation targeting which brought currency collapses and growth rates below inflation.

It is also important to understand the geo-political and geo-strategic status-qua of the world. After the collapse of USSR the USA remains as the Uni-polar at present. Out of 193 countries in the UNO member states in the world, Sri Lanka can claim no position in terms of geo-strategic and geo-political importance and naturally draws the attention of the super power. On one hand, USA fears and worries about rising China as China is determined to be the world Number one economy by the year 2031 and world class military by 2049. If China delivers on growth-boosting reforms, and US is unable to push through his proposals for renewing infrastructure and expanding the workforce, forecasts from Bloomberg Economics suggest China could grab the top spot—held by the US for well over a century—as soon as 2031.

DIFFERENT OPINION; CAN CHINA SURPASS USA ECONOMICALLY BY 2031?

The outcome is far from guaranteed. China’s reform agenda is already languishing, tariffs and other trade curbs are disrupting access to global markets and advanced technologies, and Covid stimulus has lifted debt to record levels.

The nightmare scenario for Xi is that China could follow the same trajectory as Japan, also touted as a potential challenger to the US before it crashed three decades ago. A combination of reform failure, international isolation and financial crisis could halt China before it reaches the top. Another possibility—enticing to the skeptics—if China’s official GDP data is exaggerated, the gap between the world’s biggest and second biggest economies may be larger than it appears, and closing at a slower pace.

Over the long haul, three factors determine an economy’s growth rate. The first is the size of the workforce. The second is the capital stock—everything from factories to transport infrastructure to communication networks. Finally there’s productivity, or how effectively those first two can be combined. In each of these areas, China faces an uncertain future.

SL APPEARS TO HAVE CLOSER ECONOMIC, MILITARY TIES WITH CHINA

During the past few years, Sri Lanka appears to have forged close economic and military relations with China.  The rise of Chinese influence is seen elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) such as in Chittagong - Bangladesh, Gwadar - Pakistan, and Kyaukpyu - Myanmar (Burma).  Consequently, news reports examining China’s bilateral relations with Pakistan and Myanmar often make fleeting references to Sri Lanka’s deepening ties with China in an attempt to establish a broader pattern of Chinese activity in the IOR.  Such reports about Sri Lanka and China however are observed to have increased during Rajapaksa regime and more visible at present. This further confirms as Sri Lanka has become an eager recipient of Chinese funds and loans as China does not impose any kind of preconditions like the West. China has replaced Japan as Sri Lanka’s biggest foreign donor too. However as per China’s thoughts every single Dollar is considered to be hard earned and they might not give any thing for free. International community named China’s loans as debt trap. In the meantime one should not forget the fact that during the time of civil war in Sri Lanka, Beijing provided unconditional diplomatic, economic and military support to the Sri Lankan government, winning significant goodwill in Colombo.

INDIA, US WORRIED ABOUT SL- CHINA TIES AND CHINA’S RISE 

It is important to be aware of the geo- strategically, geo-political status and national security concerns of India and the US to understand the sensitivity and complexity of the security situation in Sri Lanka. USA being the sole super power in the world would not tolerate and wish to see China replacing the US.

China’s neighbours are also sure to fear its rise, and they too will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. In fact, there is already evidence that countries like India, Japan, and Russia, as well as smaller powers like Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, are worried about China’s ascendancy and are looking for ways to contain it. In the end, they will join a US-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise, much the way Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and even China joined forces with the USA to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In terms of international relations (IR) theory, this discussion is rooted in John Mearsheimer’s take on structural realism - offensive realism - which posits that China and the United States are inexorably marching toward armed conflict due to underlying structural forces in the international system. Mearsheimer argues that China will militarily challenge the United States as its economic capabilities expand, as rising powers such as World War II Japan have often done. He predicts China will try to become the regional hegemony in Asia, with some smaller Asian states joining a balancing coalition led by the United States, because “the USA does not tolerate peer competitors”.

According to Mearsheimer, the United States should be wary: “A rising China is the most dangerous potential threat to the United States in the early twenty-first century.” Whether, this theory becomes a reality or not they fear that US might lose Sri Lanka to China in the future.  It is not irrational to mention that this tiny islanders will have to pay some price as they are living in the most important strategic location on earth which draws the attention of both regional and global powers. 

From the US point of view, China’s increased determination to finance various infrastructure projects in countries like Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is for their future military advantage. Specially, the Sri Lankan Hambantota harbour which can be used as a support transiting base and as a surveillance station for PLA forces in the future as defensive and offensive positions to protect energy interest. However, both China and Sri Lanka have rejected such a motive.  Furthermore, China’s most recent defence white paper does not mention Sri Lanka at all, whereas it details military cooperation with India.

However, in the event of war with the United States over Taiwan, for example - Chinese policy planners have long feared a retaliatory US Naval Blockade of the Straits of Malacca to cut off vital oil supplies. In a 2003 speech, President Hu Jintao even acknowledged China’s vulnerability in the Straits. Thus, some American security analysts have argued that the PRC has been actively constructing a “string of pearls” in the IOR to secure the safe passage of oil by Chinese navy ships, as well as to position China as a countervailing presence to US naval hegemony in the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC). Similarly, some Indian defense analysts believe that China has launched a concerted effort to “encircle” India by moving into the IOR, an area where China has historically not exercised a sphere of influence.

INDIAN THREAT PERCEPTION

The Indian threat perceptions have grown as China has become more active in South Asia, especially the construction and at present owning of Sri Lanka’s southern port (Hambantota) which India fears that China will use  against India in the future by PLA (Navy).  India is worried that Sri Lanka is maintaining close links with China. These is no valid reason for India to worry against Sri Lanka as Sri Lanka has assured many times that it will never act against India’s National Security. Though, experts are unable to rule out that Sri Lanka might someday bandwagon with China, at this point, Colombo appears to be seeking assistance from any country willing to provide the same as Sri Lanka economy is shrinking due to political mismanagement and global pandemic. Sri Lanka actually is fighting for survival at present and should not take any action that will threaten India’s National Security.

SHOULD SL ALLOW CHINA AN OVERSEAS MILITARY BASE?

When the author was studying National Security degree in Beijing in the year 2011-2012, he raised this question. “Will China put up a military base in Hambanotota in the future?” Chinese senior military authority vehemently denied. However, due to following reasons, one can reach a logical conclusion that China might influence Sri Lanka to put up its military base in the future. 

Firstly, because, China’s 43% of the total crude oil requirement will have to sail to China from Middle East through Indian Ocean region via Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh and the sea of Sri Lanka. Secondly, Due to the geo political and geo strategical location of Sri Lanka any big power either China or USA sitting in Sri Lanka can easily control Eastern and Western parts of the world as distances both to tactically important Palk strait and Hormuz straits from Sri Lanka is only 2000 miles. Fighter jets can cover that distance within two hours by establishing a military base in Sri Lanka. Thirdly, by establishing military bases in Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will give China a naval advantage to encircle India. Fourthly, the unique geographic position of Sri Lanka makes it a natural aircraft carrier which provides a greater military advantage to China if established a military base. But, Political leadership and the Defence Authority in Sri Lanka should seriously keep in mind if China is allowed to put up a military base in Sri Lanka in the future under whatever circumstances, India will consider it as a National security threat and will not allow Sri Lanka to have peace.

Therefore, against this backdrop, author wishes to warn Sri Lankan Political Leadership and Defence Authority not to forget the mistake it did three decades ago.

By, 
Deshakeerthi Lanka Puthra, Major General(Retd) Dr.Boniface Perera 
(RWP,RSP,USP,NDU,PSC, DPM, PhD)
International Researcher and writer former security forces commander EP and Vanni region 

Any comments, ideas, views and constructive criticisms are welcomed. The writer can be reached on,
Email:  sirinimalb@hotmail.com