China looking to build a military base in Sri Lanka, says Pentagon report

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The United States fears China, whose influence has grown significantly in South Asia in the past decade, is now looking at Sri Lanka to build a military base or logistics facility–a scenario India has been wary of. A comprehensive report, released this week by the US Department of Defense (DOD) on China, says that Beijing is very likely already considering and planning for additional military bases and logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces projection in several countries, including Sri Lanka, around the world.

Other countries named in the report are Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now looking to enhance bases or military logistics facilities around the world.

The Pentagon in the report said China has probably already made overtures to Namibia. Known focus areas of PLA planning are along the SLOCs from China to the Strait of Hormuz, Africa, and the Pacific Islands.

Although Beijing is considering a variety of locations, the PLA will advance to negotiations for infrastructure agreements, the status of forces or visiting forces agreement, and/or basing agreements with only a few countries, according to the newly released report.

Furthermore, the report also named critical Chinese organizations involved in planning and negotiating for military logistics facilities: the Central Military Commission (CMC), Joint Staff Department, CMC Logistic Support Department, and service headquarters.

China’s overseas military basing will be constrained by the willingness of potential host nations to support a PLA presence.

The fear of increasing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka isn’t unfounded. Colombo accumulated huge Chinese loans for various infrastructure projects in the country. In 2017, Hambantota Port, in its southern part, was leased out to China’s state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings Co. for 99 years after the Sri Lankan government struggled to pay the debt it had accumulated for the port development.

Although the Sri Lankan government has assured the port would not be used for military purposes, an incident in 2014 when a Chinese submarine showed up at Colombo port rang alarm bells in New Delhi.

Earlier this year, Sri Lanka had passed a controversial bill making way for preferential access to Chinese companies looking for investing in its newly built Colombo Port City. Following it, India reacted, saying it had been expecting Sri Lanka to remain “mindful” of their “bilateral cooperation”, including in the “maritime domain”, and also added that they were monitoring development from the “security perspective.”

Sri Lanka’s growing proximity to China has always been viewed with concern by India given its wariness about Beijing’s intentions and ambitions in the region.

However, given Sri Lanka’s huge dependence on the United States and India–two of its top export markets–for its goods, offering a base to China for military purposes won’t be so easy for Colombo. In 2019, Sri Lanka exported goods–most of which get preferential access under GSP– worth over $3 billion to the US.

Despite China being its top source of foreign direct investments, Sri Lanka’s exports to China lag by a great margin in comparison to the US, India, and the European Union.

 

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