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Sri Lanka's crucial role in Indian Ocean power struggle

By Catherine Philp
Courtesy: The Time (London)

(June 01, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) For a tiny, teardrop-shaped fragment in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka punches far above its weight. Its location off the southeastern coast of India may have put it right in the line of the 2004 tsunami, but it also puts it in pole position to exploit the growing geopolitical struggle unfolding in the Indian Ocean.

China’s role in the Sri Lankan civil war is well known. Its deal to build a major port at Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka is part of a regional strategy to create a “string of pearls” of friendly harbours in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma, along key shipping routes through the Indian Ocean. Less well known is India’s involvement in this and other deals. It was Delhi, not Beijing, that Sri Lanka first approached over the Hambantota deal. But having no need of a port so close to home India declined.

China’s entry into Sri Lanka has put India in an awkward position. Should it refuse any of Sri Lanka’s wishes, like weaponry and training, it knows that Beijing will be the next number Colombo calls. Any pressure India might try to exert on Sri Lanka is cancelled out by Chinese acquiescence, and — worse still for India — Pakistan’s acquiescence.

Pakistan has been selling arms to Sri Lanka with China’s encouragement throughout the last stages of the civil war. Hence the bizarre partnership of India, China and Pakistan on the supporting side of Sri Lanka’s self-adulating resolution at the UN Human Rights Council.

Next month, for the first time, Sri Lanka will attend the Shanghai Co-operation Council as a dialogue partner, a blessing bestowed by Russia and China in recognition of its importance in the new Indian Ocean great game.

Russia, which continues to growl over Nato expansion in Eastern Europe, is also observing keenly any activity in the Indian Ocean. Already Nato has encroached up to the Persian Gulf. In October 2007 it conducted its first ever naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, part of an American strategy to establish Nato’s presence in this crucial region. Russia, Iran — and even China — fear Nato’s expanding alliance with Pakistan will give it a foothold in the region.

Despite Delhi’s friendly relations with the West, India is desperate not to allow Pakistan to gain any more influence there.

Sri Lanka’s prime location in prime maritime real estate has elevated it to the jewel in the crown of the new Indian Ocean paradigm.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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