On October 31, a nuclear-powered Chinese submarine docked at Colombo Port’s South Terminal, in Sri Lanka’s capital. Representatives from both sides characterized the visit as routine: China has owned the terminal in question for over 35 years, and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officials claimed the vessel stopped to replenish fuel and supplies before delving into an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. It’s not unusual for Colombo to receive port calls from a wide variety of ships.
That did little to reassure India, which was already spooked by a visit to the port from a Chinese vessel in September. November’s trip marked the second time in under two months that China had sent offensive-capable ships on port calls just off of India’s southern tip. Despite the defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who pushed for increased Chinese investment in the region, in January’s elections, Beijing and Sri Lanka are still moving ahead with port projects in Colombo and Hambantota. For China, the Indian Ocean region is just another theater of influence to tend to. It’s everything to India, and the Sri Lanka trips are a worrying trend. Why?
India is in the dark about China’s designs for the region, and must decipher that strategy through guesswork. Fresh off of losing fistfuls of dollars in resource deals in conflict-ridden South Sudan, China is beefing up its military network to hedge against economic risk. In the Indian Ocean, that means using its military muscle to preserve access to harbors in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Maldives.
To do that, China has been stoking submarine buildups around the Indian Ocean basin. Beijing is refurbishing two Romeo-class submarines (modernized 035G Ming-class vessels) as a gift to Bangladesh, to be delivered in 2019. Dhaka will be able to select newer vessels, since both countries enjoy a strong business relationship, with the Chinese investing billions for access to Chittagong Port and Cox’s Bazar.
There’s just one catch: Bangladesh doesn’t have enough trained naval officers to run those subs. China plans to step up on that front: providing training courses at Qingdao Submarine Academy, the PLA’s main educational facility. China may also provide C-802 anti-ship and land attack missiles, and diver propulsion torpedo vehicles that can be used to rapidly deploy special forces teams underwater. And Bangladesh isn’t the only country on the basin that China is doting upon – Pakistan received six nuclear-powered subs from Beijing last year.
That may bolster China’s investment security in the short term, but with buildups taking place around the basin, Beijing and Delhi will continue to butt heads. Can the region survive that tension?