China, owning reclaimed land at Colombo, is a worrying development in the Indian Ocean Region.

Indian Ocean Region, IOR, China, Colombo, construction, container port, PLAN, submarine
Photo: J. Jakobson/CC BY-NC 2.0

The importance of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) cannot be over-emphasised. All the ships have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka if they are travelling anywhere in the IOR. And, China’s interest in the Sri Lankan ports of Hambantota and Colombo are well known. China has been overtly assertive in getting contracts for the construction of Hambantota port and the expansion of Colombo port. Now China is eyeing to develop a special economic zone of more than 15,000 acres near Hambantota and a city enclave South of the newly built Colombo container port.

Chinese warships and nuclear submarines have been making port calls at Colombo since last three years. Last year in February, PLAN Type 926 submarine tender (ASR) #865 Liugongdao was seen in Colombo, Sri Lanka, suggesting continuous presence of PLAN submarine(s) in the IOR!

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Chinese PLAN submarine support ship ASR #865 Liugongdao in Colombo.

The debt trap

As is well known, China’s assistance to any country always comes with preconditions. China has been exploiting Sri Lanka’s fledgling economic situation to its advantage. China has asked the Sri Lankan government to clear the domestic legal and political issues before investments are made into the Colombo Port City Development Project. “China has said that when they start the port, they want the land also,” Sri Lankan Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake had said, although he added that China had not made it a precondition. However, Yi Xianliang, Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, has said the two deals were related. 1

Beijing seems to have linked the two projects to pressurise heavily indebted Colombo although Sri Lankan political leaders deny any linkage. The Magampura public protests have not been heeded by the Sri Lankan government. 2

The Colombo Port City Development Project is being constructed by the CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd, a local company integrated under Sri Lankan law which signed an agreement with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). It is a local front fully owned and operated by the China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC), black listed by the World Bank.

The CCCC dropped its claim for $143 million for delaying the Port City project of $1.4 billion after the Sri Lankan government allocated 272 acres, out of the reclaimed land of 665 acres. 3

The CHEC announced commencement of work through a welcome note published in August last year on its site. 4

Reclamation area

China started the reclamation work immediately. The land area to be reclaimed is approximately 665 acres to the South of Colombo Container Port. The satellite imagery shows that a much larger area is being reclaimed. It is almost 2km X 2km which works out to be approximately 10,000 acres. The overview of the project is shown in the image below.

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The reclamation of land by China started somewhere in the first week of August last year. The speed of reclamation in the last six months, as seen on the satellite imagery, is amazing.

The present status of land reclamation as seen on Google Earth (GE) imagery of DOI, February 2017

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The dredging area as observed on satellite imagery is approximately 30km ENE of the reclaimed land.

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Dredging ships

There are two trailing suction hopper dredgers, Jun Yang 1 and Wan Qing Sha, that are being used by the CHEC for the reclamation of land South of the Container Port. Jun Yang 1 is a 170m long dredger with a gross tonnage of 20,000 and DWT 33,000. It is homeported at Guangzhou and carries a Chinese flag. Wan Qing Sha is a 132m long dredger with a gross tonnage of 11,000 and DWT 12,000. It is homeported at Guangzhou and also carries a Chinese flag.

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PLAN ships

A large number of PLAN ships and submarines have been visiting Sri Lankan ports since last five years. The frequency has increased in the last three years. These ships mostly are survey vessels with ESM/ECM tasks. Even the training ship #81 Zhenghe was carrying an additional ESM/ECM radome when it visited Colombo recently.

A large number of PLAN ships and submarines have been visiting Sri Lankan ports since last five years. The frequency has increased in the last three years.

The visits by PLAN ships were interesting to read on satellite imagery. The first one was a 21st anti-piracy flotilla consisting of two modern Type 54A frigates #573 Liuzhou and #574 Sanya along with Type908 fleet replenishment ship #885 Qinghaihu. This so called anti-piracy flotilla was in the IOR for more than two months before it returned to China.

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The second one was a Type 926 submarine search and rescue tender #865 Liugongdao. These ships generally travel along with China’s nuclear submarines especially when they are away from China’s EEZ. This ship is the mothership of world’s most advanced rescue submarines Type 7103 deep submergence rescue vessel (DSRV). 5 It can dive up to 600m and rescue up to 18 personnel from a ‘Kursk’ like incident.

It is very interesting to note that the rescue submarine is not seen onboard the mothership. The satellite image in its entirety suggests that at least one nuclear submarine was present in or around Colombo and the DSRV was on some special mission around Colombo.

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The recent PLAN visit to Colombo was noticed on the latest satellite imagery of 4 February, this year. This time it was the best naval survey ship that China possesses — the Type 636 hydrographic survey ship Haiyang #22 class named — Qian Sanqiang. This 130m long marine comprehensive survey ship is equipped with more than twenty measurement systems, including submarine geomorphology, submarine surface geological survey, ocean gravity, area temperatures, salinity, density, tide etc. It has a crew of 134 personnel. It can endure a travel distance of 15,000 nautical miles at speeds of 15 knots. The presence of Haiyang #22 in Colombo indicates Chinese interest in surveying the IOR for smoother submarine operations.

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Implications for India

China owning the reclaimed land at Colombo is an extremely worrying development in the IOR. China operating its own SEZ in Hambantota (if not) and Colombo seems to be becoming a reality sooner than later. China has not only been putting immense pressure on Sri Lanka but also telling India to stay off Sri Lanka. 6

The visits by Chinese PLAN nuclear submarines (SSNs & SSBNs) and ships, especially the survey ship and tender carrying DSRV, are extremely worrying for India. These permit China not only to survey the deep waters around India but also assist in the smooth movement of their submarines in the IOR.

The close hold and control over two Sri Lankan ports — Colombo and Hambantota — will certainly make China’s position in the IOR very strong in the times to come.

India must increase its naval presence in the IOR and ensure that Chinese underwater survey projects are not permitted. India must convey a strong message to China that expansionist activities will not be permitted in the IOR.


References

1 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-silkroad-sri-lanka-exclusive-idUSKBN15U2VM

2 https://thewire.in/98563/chinese-investment-sri-lanka-protests/

3 http://in.reuters.com/article/sri-lanka-china-portcity-idINKCN10D18B

4 http://colomboportcity.saberion.org/chec-port-city-colombo-pvt-ltd-welcomes-the-gosls-approval-for-work-resumption-of-colombo-port-city/

5 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/highlands_and_islands/7607972.stm and
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fNcCr7n_hg

6 https://www.forbes.com/sites/panosmourdoukoutas/2017/02/11/china-tells-india-to-stay-off-its-indian-ocean-colony-sri-lanka/#12fd7ab840b8

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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