Another ‘pearl’ in Beijing’s string of ports

by Michael Richardson

A newly constructed harbor at Hambantota, near Sri Lanka’s southern tip, began filling with water recently in readiness for the first ships in November. The port — which will have a water depth of 17 meters, making it one of the deepest in South Asia — has been carved out of coastal land in a joint venture between the Chinese and Sri Lankan governments.

China’s involvement has inevitably raised speculation that Hambantota is the latest jewel in a so-called string of pearls that will pave the way for China’s rapidly expanding navy to operate routinely in the Indian Ocean from secure bases in the region.

The aim would be to challenge U.S. and Indian naval dominance in the area and ensure that China itself could protect vital trade and energy supply lines instead of having to rely on potentially hostile powers. Already, China imports over half the oil it needs and at least 75 percent is shipped across the Indian Ocean from the Persian Gulf and Africa. Moreover, China’s dependence on imported oil needed to run its modern land, sea and air transport is rising.

If direct protection of Chinese trade routes and other interests in the Indian Ocean is indeed the objective of those in China supporting development of a blue water fleet able to project power over long distances, there is still a great deal of work to be done before the “string of pearls” becomes a network of naval and air bases remotely comparable to those India already has on its mainland and on its islands in the Andaman Sea guarding the western approaches to the Malacca Strait, or even to the joint U.S.-British base on Diego Garcia atoll in the mid-Indian Ocean.

If China has ambitions to become an Indian Ocean military power, it is doing so by stealth, starting with commercial operations. Sri Lanka’s official website says the first phase of Hambantota’s development now being completed cost about $360 million, with 85 percent of the funding from the Chinese government and the remaining 15 percent from the Sri Lankan government.

Unlike Sri Lanka’s main port in the capital, Colombo, on the western flank of the island, and Trincomalee, a natural deep-water harbor on the northeast coast, Hambantota is located very close to a key junction of the main international shipping lanes linking Europe, Africa and the Middle East to Asia via the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

About 70,000 seagoing merchant vessels, from giant oil tankers to container ships and other cargo carriers, round the southern tip of Sri Lanka each year. Hambantota is hoping to induce some of these ships to refuel, replenish and trans-ship cargo to places like India, Myanmar and the Maldives through the new port and its associated facilities, taking business away from established regional maritime hubs, particularly Singapore, which is the world’s busiest port and offers a wide range of maritime services.

The Hambantota project is being built in four stages at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. By the time work finishes in 2014, Hambantota will be able to handle 33 ships at a time. It will have extensive bunkering, cargo handling, storage, warehouse and trans-shipment capacity. It will also have ship-building and ship-repair yards, as well as a nearby industrial zone and airport. But it will still be small in comparison to major Asian ports such as Singapore, Hong Kong and those in Japan, China and South Korea.

Still, some Indian analysts say that access to the harbor and airport will enable China to support its naval deployments in the region more effectively. However, the head of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority said earlier this month that China would have no role in operating Hambantota, although it had provided a loan and two Chinese construction companies, China Harbor Engineering Company and Sinhydro Corporation, were helping in the port construction.

China has made similar loans to develop commercial port facilities at Gwadar, in Pakistan not far from the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and Chittagong in Bangladesh. Neither has yet yielded much commercial benefit, let alone assured naval access, for China.

There are signs that Beijing is now seeking to do in the Indian Ocean what the U.S. military has done in Southeast Asia since the 1990s — establish a network of “places not bases” by negotiating country-by-country agreements allowing naval ships and, in some cases military aircraft as well as service personnel, to use base facilities that remain under the control of the host government.

This approach avoids sensitivities about foreign bases violating national sovereignty. Applied in the Indian Ocean, it could help China avoid inflaming its already complicated relations with India, while still supporting Chinese naval operations.

Since China started sending its navy on anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa in late 2008 to protect Chinese merchant vessels, its warships have called mainly at Salalah, in southern Oman, and to a lesser extent in Aden, Djibouti and Karachi, to refuel, replenish and allow crews to take shore leave.

It may only be a matter of time before these port calls are upgraded to a series of formal agreements guaranteeing access and support for Chinese naval ships. Writing in the Jamestown China Brief last month (July), Daniel Kostecka, a senior China analyst with the U.S. Department of the Navy, said that such agreements might be negotiated for ports of particular importance to the Chinese navy’s missions and presence in the Indian Ocean, such as Salalah, Aden and possibly Karachi, where there are ship-repair yards and the Chinese Navy has close ties with the Pakistan Navy.

However, it seems highly unlikely that the commercial port facilities China has helped to build at Hambantota and Gwadar will be converted into bases for the Chinese Navy. Aside from the sovereignty issue, the costs of conversion to full-fledged military use would require billions of dollars in Chinese investment. Even then, they would be vulnerable to attack from highly accurate long-range missiles in a crisis.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.