China aided Sri Lanka bloodbath
The brutal military campaign by Sri Lanka’s mono-ethnic security forces may have wiped out the Tamil Tigers but it has left troubling questions about China’s role, as in Darfur, in aiding atrocities, writes Brahma Chellaney
The Economic Times, June 8, 2009
Like in the case of the Darfur genocide in Sudan, Chinese weapons and aid to Sri Lanka facilitated the bloodbath on that tiny island-nation that left thousands of trapped civilians dead this year as government forces decimated the Tamil Tiger guerrillas in a brutal military campaign. More people have been killed in Sri Lanka this year than in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza combined, according to the United Nations.
Chinese Jian-7 fighter-jets, anti-aircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other supplied weapons played a key role in the Sri Lankan military successes against the Tamil Tigers. After a daring 2007 raid by the Tigers’ air wing wrecked 10 government military aircraft, Beijing was quick to supply six warplanes on long-term credit. Such weapon supplies, along with $1 billion in aid to the tottering Sri Lankan economy last year alone, helped tilt the military balance in favour of government forces.
India’s consistent refusal to sell offensive weapons, coupled with the US action last year in ending direct military aid in response to Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human-rights record, created a void that China was only too happy to fill at a time when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was desperately shopping for arms. Besides increasing its bilateral aid five-fold between 2007 and 2008 alone, Beijing sold heavy weapons, many of them through Lanka Logistics & Technologies, a firm jointly owned by the President’s brother, defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a naturalised US citizen. That opened the path to atrocities in the offensive led by a US green card holder, army chief Sarath Fonseka.
As in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Burma and elsewhere, Chinese military and financial support directly contributed to government excesses in Sri Lanka. Now there are growing international calls, including by states that had designated the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation, for an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
International aid groups and independent journalists were banned from the war zone, and even today nearly 300,000 Tamils are being held against their will in displacement camps, labelled “internment centres” by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
In all the countries where China stands accused of being an enabler of repression, its military aid has been motivated by one of three considerations: to gain access to oil and mineral resources; to market its goods and services; or to find avenues to make strategic inroads. In Sri Lanka, Beijing has calculatedly sought to advance its wider strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region.
Hambantota — the billion-dollar port that Chinese engineers are building on Sri Lanka’s southeast — is the latest ‘pearl’ in China’s strategy to control vital sea-lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean by assembling a “string of pearls” in the form of listening posts, special naval arrangements and access to ports.
In this decade, Beijing has moved aggressively to secure contracts to build ports in the Indian Ocean rim, including in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka. Initially, the projects are commercial in nature. But in the subsequent phase, as exemplified by the current expansion of Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port into a naval base, Beijing’s strategic interests openly come into play.
Gwadar, overlooking the Strait of Hormuz through which 40% of the world’s oil supply passes, epitomises how an increasingly ambitious Beijing, brimming with hard cash from a blazing economic growth, is building new links in the Indian Ocean. In addition to eyeing Gwadar as an anchor for its rapidly modernising navy, Beijing has sought naval and commercial links with four other Indian Ocean nations — the Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar.
However, none of the projects China has bagged in recent years can match the strategic value of Hambantota, which sits astride the great trade arteries. Beijing hopes to eventually access Hambantota as a refuelling and docking station for its navy. In fact, it probably won the March 2007 Hambantota commercial contract as a quid pro quo for agreeing to supply major weapons to Colombo. As Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has put it bluntly, “China is fishing in troubled waters”.
Such is China’s emphasis on projecting power in the Indian Ocean that a May 2008 paper published by the military-run Chinese Institute for International Strategic Studies pointed to the inevitability of Beijing setting up naval bases in the Indian Ocean rim and elsewhere. An earlier article in the Liberation Army Daily had asserted that the contiguous corridor stretching from the Taiwan Straits to the Indian Ocean’s western rim constituted China’s legitimate offshore-defence perimeter.
Against this background, the Indian Ocean region is likely to determine whether a multipolar Asia or a Sino-centric Asia will emerge. That issue will be decided in this region, not in East Asia, where the power balance is more or less clear.
What is troubling, though, is that China — with its ability to provide political protection through its UN Security Council veto power — has signed tens of billions of dollars worth of energy and arms contracts in recent years with a host of problem states — from Burma and Iran to Zimbabwe and Venezuela.
Indeed, from helping Sudan’s government militarily in Darfur to aiding a bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war in a way that potentially sows the seeds of new unrest, Beijing has contributed to violence and repression in internally torn states.
Now saddled with a large Chinese-aided war machine, which set in motion the relentless militarisation of society and muzzling of the media, Sri Lanka is likely to discover that it was easier to wage war than to make peace.
(The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)
(c) The Economic Times, 2009