Hambantota, Chittagong, and the Maldives – Unlikely Pearls for the Chinese Navy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 23

Chittagong Port

Much of the discussion regarding China’s maritime ambitions in the Indian Ocean has revolved around the so-called “String of Pearls” strategy that Beijing is alleged to be pursuing.  As part of this strategic construct it is claimed that Beijing is building a comprehensive network of naval bases stretching from southern China to Pakistan.  This theory, a creation of a 2004 U.S. Department of Defense contractor study entitled Energy Futures in Asia, is now accepted as fact by many in official and unofficial circles [1].  While the study contains some useful arguments, certain elements of it have been selectively quoted as singular evidence of Beijing’s strategic intent in this region. In spite of the lack of evidentiary proof supporting the assertion that China intends to turn these facilities into military bases, claims regarding future bases in these locations for the Chinese Navy continue to this day, particularly in the United States and India [2].  This is somewhat ironic given that in past six months, Sri Lanka’s president and Bangladesh’s foreign minister stated publicly that China’s investments in port facilities in their nations are strictly commercial while over the past year the Maldives under the leadership of a new pro-Indian president reached out to New Delhi, not Beijing, to assist with maritime security for the island archipelago (The Times of India, June 28; BBC News, May 17; IndianExpress.com, August 13, 2009).  

From the Chinese perspective, in June 2009 Senior Captain Xie Dongpei of the PLA Navy stated that China’s port construction in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan was strictly commercial (The Straits Times, June 24, 2009).  Further, in a 2004 article Senior Captain Xu Qi discussed Chinese investment in port facilities in the Indian Ocean within the same context as Chinese commercial investments in Russia, Africa, and the Caribbean as well the importance of China’s membership in the World Trade Organization [3].  Yet, despite strident denials from high level officials, rumors of Chinese military activity in these nations will not cease.  This article will examine allegations of Chinese military facilities in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives to include the practical benefits of these locations for China’s security.

Hambantota (Sri Lanka):  While Hambantota is not listed as one of China’s “pearls” in Energy Futures in Asia, numerous (later) sources have since associated Chinese investment in the port with China’s wider naval ambitions in the region.  These include Joint Operating Environment 2008 by U.S. Joint Forces Command along with an article by an Indian analyst claiming that Hambantota will provide extensive replenishment facilities for Chinese warships and submarines [4].  China has provided $360 million for the development of Hambantota that includes building a harbor, cargo terminals and a refueling depot (Sri Lanka Guardian, June 16).  The construction agreement was signed on March 12, 2007, between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and the Consortium of China Harbor Engineering Company Limited and Sino Hydro Corporation Limited.

Beyond Chinese financing of commercial port construction, there is little else to support the contention that Hambantota will one day serve as a base for Chinese warships.  On a map, a Chinese-funded naval base in Sri Lanka looks like a dagger pointed directly at India.  From an historic standpoint, the idea of a Chinese naval base in Sri Lanka provides further intrigue because for centuries the island nation served as a key nexus of China’s maritime trade in the Indian Ocean.  Sri Lanka was even visited by all seven of Zheng He’s Treasure Fleets and represents one of the few places that Zheng He led troops in combat [5].  

In reality, such a base, due to its proximity to India, would be a liability in a serious conflict as Sri Lanka lies less than 50 nautical miles from India at its nearest point. Given the small size of Sri Lanka’s air force and navy, without the addition of substantial air defenses and hardened infrastructure that Sri Lanka cannot afford to provide, any Chinese military forces on Sri Lanka would find themselves vulnerable to strikes by the Indian military.  At the same time, a robust base at Hambantota or anywhere else in Sri Lanka is a costly investment for the support of forces engaged in counter piracy and peacetime presence patrols that would have the added negative effect of inflaming China’s relations with India.  Additionally, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka envisions Hambantota, which is in his home district, as a second Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest port, in order to further economic development of his nation.  That he has sought and secured Chinese funding for the project should not be taken as indicator that a large foreign military presence, Chinese or otherwise, would be welcome in an area he is committed to opening up to development, trade and tourism (Sri Lanka Guardian, June 16).  

Chittagong (Bangladesh):  China’s interest in investing in the container port of Chittagong in Bangladesh was reported in Energy Futures in Asia in 2004 with the claim that China could be seeking more extensive naval and commercial access to Bangladesh although the report admits that China’s interest in Chittagong for military purposes could not be confirmed [6].  As with other claims surrounding China’s alleged “String of Pearls” strategy, Energy Futures in Asia is consistently cited as credible evidence of China’s long term intentions in Bangladesh.  

Like Hambantota, there is no evidence to suggest the end state of China’s investment in Chittagong will be a base for Chinese warships.  Additionally, like Hambantota, there is reason to conclude that Dhaka will not permit China to develop a naval base at Chittagong.  First, simple economics do not support arguments that Chittagong is becoming a “Chinese Pearl.”  According to the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, China has agreed to help finance an $8.7 billion expansion of Chittagong, already Bangladesh’s primary port, which handles approximately 90 percent of the nation’s foreign trade.  Yet, Bangladesh’s leaders have an expansive vision for the port that is commercial, not military.  Bangladesh envisions Chittagong as a transshipment hub for trade flowing into and out of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, and China through a developing network of river, road, and rail links (China Daily, March 25).  In fact, just as Dhaka is negotiating with Beijing for investment in Chittagong and is considering road and rail links from Chittagong through Burma to Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province, Dhaka signed an agreement with New Delhi in May 2010 for the transshipment of Indian goods through Bangladesh to the land locked state of Tripura in northeastern India (Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, May 31; China Daily, March 25). India in turn agreed to provide dredging equipment to assist Bangladesh in its efforts to dredge rivers for improved flood control, navigation and access (UNB Connect, January 12).  Also, while China and India are Bangladesh’s number one and two trading partners with Bangladesh suffering from a substantial trade imbalance with both nations, in 2008, Bangladesh’s exports to India were over three times higher than its exports to China [7].  This in addition to Bangladesh receiving electricity from India’s power grid arguably makes India the more important trading partner (UNB Connect, January 12).  

Second, the geography of Chittagong, or what Alfred Thayer Mahan calls position, is not in China’s favor.  With the exception of a small section of its southeastern border, Bangladesh shares its entire land border with India.  Given that, it is difficult to envision a set of circumstances that would cause Dhaka to risk antagonizing a major trading partner that also surrounds it on three sides by permitting a foreign power to develop a naval base there.  Foreign Minister Moni is on record as stating that she views Bangladesh as a bridge between India and China hoping to capitalize on its position between the two nations while being careful not to offend either.  She stated specifically, “I don’t believe if China helps us build this sea port that China will be able to use it for other purposes.  Bangladesh will never let any part of its territory be used for any kind of attacks or anything like that” (BBC News , May 17).         

Marao (Maldives):  One of the more sensationalistic claims regarding China’s military ambitions in the Indian Ocean revolves around reports that China has developed a submarine base in the Maldives Islands, a chain of over 1100 atolls and islets approximately 400 nautical miles south and east of India.  Press reports began circulating in 1999 that the government of the Maldives leased Marao Atoll to China to set up a monitoring station.  Additional reports followed a 2001 visit to the Maldives by Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji claiming that China intended to build a submarine base on Marao to be completed in 2010 [8]. One article by an Indian analyst even claimed a PLA Navy officer welcomed the possibility that the Maldives could be submerged by 2040 due to global warming because an underwater base would be “ideal for submarines” (Dhivehi Observer , May 8, 2005).  In 2000 President Gayoom of the Maldives attempted to assure New Delhi that his nation was not negotiating with China for the development of a naval base but was not entirely successful as the story continues to propagate (Minivan News, October 9, 2006).  Contributing factors are likely general Indian paranoia over even rumored Chinese military activity on its periphery and public criticism in 2006 and 2008 by political opposition leaders over perceptions of then President Gayoom’s close relationship with Beijing (Dhivehi Observer, June 12, 2008; Minivan News, September 18, 2006).  Regardless, as late as 2009, articles were still being written by Indian security analysts and retired military officers about China’s attempts to encircle India that included mention of China’s base in the Maldives [9].  In February 2010 a professor at the University of Pennsylvania wrote that China’s submarine base in the Maldives represented a direct challenge to the American air and naval base at Diego Garcia (Japan Times Online, February 12).  

Assertions aside, there is no Chinese submarine base in the Maldives.  In fact, it is unlikely that any of the atolls that make up the Maldives could even handle the type of sophisticated infrastructure required to support submarines (Dhivehi Observer, May 8, 2005). It also makes no sense for the government on Male Atoll to risk relations with its closest neighbor by permitting a potentially hostile power to develop a naval base among its islands as India is the island group’s primary security partner.  The Indian Army and Navy conduct exercises with the Maldivian National Defense Forces, officers from the Maldives train in Indian military schools, and in 2006 India donated a fast attack craft to the Maldives (IndianExpress.com, August 13, 2009).  India also sent ships and aircraft to the Maldives to assist with tsunami relief in 2004, and in 1988 the Indian military sent 1600 troops to the Maldives to defeat an attempted coup against President Gayoom by Tamil mercenaries (IndianExpress.com, November 4, 2008; Asian Defence, October 16, 2009).  More important, in 2009 the Maldives under the leadership of the new pro-Indian President Mohamed Nasheed approached India about becoming integrated into India’s security grid in order to enhance existing security cooperation agreements and out of growing fears that a Maldivian island resort could be taken over by terrorists (The Hindu, October 22, 2009).  According to Indian press, as a result of this request the Indian Navy and Coast Guard will each base one helicopter in the Maldives, India will install coastal radars on Maldivian atolls, where there are currently only two such devices as well as integrate them with India’s maritime surveillance network, and Indian patrol aircraft now conduct flights over the islands (IndianExpress.com, August 13, 2009).  

Given the Maldives reliance on India for security assistance, it is inconceivable that China or any other nation would be permitted to develop military facilities there.  It would not only undermine Maldivian security but, given the small size of the atolls that make up the Maldives, any such facility would be small and difficult to defend, making it a vulnerable target for India’s navy and air force.  India showed in both 1988 and 2004 that the Maldives are within its operational reach and while those missions were to provide assistance against a coup attempt and a natural disaster, the point is still instructive for any nation that would seek to use the Maldives as a base to undermine Indian security.  

Conclusion

Despite almost a decade of speculation there appears to be no hard evidence that suggests China plans to base warships in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or the Maldives, or that these nations even desire a Chinese military presence.  In fact, all three of these nations’ proximity to India and their desires to balance their relations between India and China indicate that China will not develop military facilities in these countries. While the Chinese are heavily investing in developing infrastructure for improved access into the Indian Ocean, which in turn is helping it gain political influence in these countries, the extent to which it has improved access and infrastructure will translate into basing arrangements remains to be seen.

China will no doubt continue to maintain positive relationships with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives, but this does not mean China will seek to establish a military presence in any of these countries or that such a presence would even be permitted as it would not only undermine their security, it would do very little to enhance China’s.  Recent denials of future Chinese naval bases in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka by leaders of those nations and the Maldives’ reliance on India for security assistance should be taken as clear signs that such arrangements are farther from reach than some may think, and reflect the growing concerns over the intentions of these nations regarding the possibility of Chinese military bases on their soil.  

Notes:

1. Julie MacDonald, Amy Donahue, and Bethany Danyluk, Energy Futures in Asia, Booz-Allen Hamilton Report Sponsored by the Director of Net Assessment, (November 2004).
2. Congressional Research Service, China Naval Modernization – Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf, (October 1, 2010). and Jagannath Chattopadhyay “When China is the Enemy Look East – Taking Control of Oil Route, China Surrounds India by Establishing its Bases all Around,” Bartaman Hard Copy, (October 15, 2010).
3. Xu Qi, “Maritime Geostrategy and the Development of the Chinese Navy in the 21st Century,” translated by Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, Naval War College Review, (Autumn 2006).
4. The Joint Operating Environment 2008, http://www.jfcom.mil/newslink/storyarchive/2008/JOE2008.pdf, (25 November 2008) and Sanjay Kumar, “China’s Naval Strategy – Implications for India,” http://www.ipcs.org/article_details.php?articleNo=2823, (March 2, 2009).
5. Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas – The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 114-115, (Oxford University Press, 1996).
6. Julie MacDonald, Amy Donahue, and Bethany Danyluk, Energy Futures in Asia, Booz-Allen Hamilton Report Sponsored by the Director of Net Assessment, (November 2004).
7. Bangladesh – EU Bilateral Trade and Trade With the World, http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2006/september/tradoc_113349.pdf, (September 22, 2009).
8. Gurpreet S. Khurana, “China’s String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean and its Security Implications,” Strategic Analysis, (January 2008).
9. Sanjay Kumar, “China’s Naval Strategy – Implications for India,” http://www.ipcs.org/article_details.php?articleNo=2823, (March 2, 2009).

[The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.]