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China’s “String of Pearls” Strategy Falters
Although much focus has been on China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, the country has been making waves in the Indian Ocean as well, in a similar campaign said to further establish and control crucial shipping routes. But this strategy seems to have faltered lately, particularly with Sri Lanka’s new government.
Key to this is Maithripala Sirisena, the nation’s newly elected president, who took the helm in January, and changed tack of the previous (and notably pro-China) administration by speaking out about the alleged corruption behind China’s investment which was supported by the former president.
What’s more, in February Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera revoked permission for Chinese submarines to dock at any of the island nation’s ports.
This follows increased Chinese naval activity in the region late last year, which saw a succession of submarines, along with a warship, docking in Colombo. Perhaps understandably, this activity renewed concerns from India (and Japan) that Sri Lanka was playing favorites with China by allowing frequent access to its ports, not to mention green-lighting numerous Chinese-funded infrastructure projects.
During a recent visit to Beijing, Samaraweera commented on the Chinese calling to port in Colombo on the same day that Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the city (in September). “I really don’t know under which sort of circumstances that led to some submarines… to [visit] the port of Colombo on the very day the Japanese Prime Minister was visiting Sri Lanka. But we will ensure that such incidents, from whatever quarter, do not happen during our tenure,” Samaraweera said.
Also coinciding with the government changeover is the recent shutdown of a massive Chinese-funded project to construct a luxurious port city adjacent to Colombo South Port. Land reclamation had already begun for this project, backed by former president Mahinda Rajapaska and China President Xi Jinping, in September.
The new administration would like to further review the construction contracts—allegedly lacking in transparency—as well as conduct further studies on the environmental impact this ambitious project is expected to have.
Adding to the delicate balance of diplomacy between these nations, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka in March, just before Sri Lanka’s State meeting with Beijing at the end of the month. India’s strategically timed visit—the first in nearly 30 years—demonstrates a clear effort to strengthen ties with their neighbor and prove that they will not lose influence in the region. During the visit, there were also talks of funding and related assistance from India for other infrastructure projects on the island.
China, on the other hand, may view these recent changes as just a bump in the road, as Sri Lanka is still financially dependent on them. And China’s investment is not just limited to Sri Lanka, but has been allocated to key ports throughout such South Asian nations as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. This strategy has been dubbed China’s “String of Pearls,” primarily by U.S. and Indian media, and refers to the country’s push for increased military and commercial presence throughout the Indian Ocean.
H/T: Nikkei Asian Review