China, Sri Lanka, and the Maritime Great Game

What the back-and-forth over a port project in Colombo says about Beijing’s plans to dominate the Indian Ocean.


The surprising decision by the new government of Sri Lanka to reverse course and support a billion-dollar Chinese port project underscores the long shadow of Beijing’s influence in the region, even in countries seemingly determined to push back. More importantly, the green light for the port project highlights China’s determination to secure access to a network of coastal installations across the Indian Ocean, a key part of President Xi Jinping’s own pivot to the West.

Last week, an otherwise mundane civil works project leapt into the headlines when newly elected Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena abandoned campaign pledges to block Chinese plans for a $1.4 billion port city in Colombo, on the western coast of the island nation. That raised eyebrows, because his election was widely seen as a blow to China’s budding friendship with Sri Lanka; former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had steadily moved Sri Lanka closer to Beijing.

Last month, just after taking office, new Sri Lankan government officials had expressed concern about the security implications of the Chinese project, which Xi launched with great fanfare on a visit last September. Within weeks, however, Sirisena gave the go-ahead for the port development in order to avoid, as Sri Lankan officials said, a “misunderstanding” with China. (Just to further muddy the waters, the new prime minister tried to walk back the approval late last week in comments to Parliament, but the Chinese firm set to build the port is convinced it will now go ahead.)

Colombo Port City is about a whole lot more than a deep-water harbor, golf course, and Formula One racetrack. It’s part and parcel of one of Xi’s signature foreign-policy initiatives: a double-barreled, $40 billion plan to deepen China’s physical and economic links with neighbors to the West.

That includes development of new road and rail links between China, Central Asia, and the Middle East — dubbed the “New Silk Road.” The other half of the plan is a network of commercial port facilities in the Indian Ocean, meant to connect the dots between China and a region that is increasingly important to it — the “Maritime Silk Road.” China is heavily dependent on the Middle East and Africa for energy and natural resources, and is understandably anxious to safeguard those vital sea lanes. Xi launched the Maritime Silk Road notion on a visit to Indonesia in 2013, and again heavily touted it on a regional road show late last year.

But the problem is that China’s lurch to the West, especially its efforts to increase its physical presence in the Indian Ocean, have neighbors like India worried. A port visit to Colombo last year by a Chinese submarine set pulses racing in New Delhi. Many Indian security analysts see the Maritime Silk Road as an effort to encircle the subcontinent.

The United States, for its part, has spent several years trying to push back against a smothering Chinese embrace of its neighbors in the South China Sea. That’s one reason it’s now keeping a close eye on Chinese infrastructure investments in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Maldives, the Comoros, and the Seychelles that promise to extend China’s economic, diplomatic, and possibly military reach across the entire region.

“You have a bit of a maritime Great Game going on in the Indian Ocean that will involve us, it will involve India, and it will involve, of course, China,” Adm. Gary Roughead, a former U.S. chief of naval operations who is now at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, told Foreign Policy. “I think we have to watch it and look at it with eyes wide open.”

For China, the new Maritime Silk Road, like its landlocked twin, is all about economic development. President Xi has touted the project’s potential to bring “common development and prosperity” to China and Southeast Asia. Building big, modern ports and other infrastructure will not only boost trade across the region; it is meant to provide a huge, short-term economic boost for countries on the receiving end. China believes that the Sri Lanka port plan could spur $13 billion in new investment, for example.

But it’s not all dollars and cents. Initiatives like the Maritime Silk Road also offer Beijing a way to boost its appeal in the region and win friends, after a tough few years of blowback thanks to heavy-handed diplomacy in Southeast Asia.

“I believe that the Maritime Silk Road has a strategic component. State-sponsored investment in infrastructure projects helps China advance its influence in the region and creates a network of friendly countries,” Virginia Marantidou, an Asia-Pacific security analyst at Pacific Forum CSIS, a think tank, told FP.

For those watching from Delhi and Washington, China’s efforts in the Indian Ocean seem to be about more than just trade and development. For a decade, some U.S. analysts have fretted over the idea that China is trying to build a “string of pearls,” or network of naval bases, across the Indian Ocean that would turn a regional naval power into a global one. Sri Lanka’s crucial position astride the trade routes between Europe and the Middle East and Asia fits squarely into that notion; Ceylon’s harbors provided a crucial stepping stone for Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British navies in centuries past.

To date, China’s outreach and port-building activities have been civilian in nature. The Colombo project, for example, is specifically designed for deep-draft container ships that carry the bulk of China’s maritime trade. And a naval base located just 150 miles off the Indian coast would be extremely vulnerable if the two countries came to blows again.

But ports that service cargo ships can also lend a vital hand to China’s growing navy, offering a sort of “dual-use” capability that masks military potential behind the veneer of commercial growth, many analysts say. China has made huge advances in building a modern navy in recent years, but still lacks the ability to operate far from home, because, unlike the United States, it doesn’t have a network of friendly bases that can serve as a port in a storm. The Rand Corporation just noted that logistics, and particularly the lack of basing facilities in the Indian Ocean, is one of the Chinese navy’s Achilles’ heels.

“I think that they will knit together a series of friendly relationships and infrastructure investments that will support this longer-term, two-pronged approach into the Middle East and Central Asia,” Roughead said — even if there are no plans afoot for formal military bases in the near future.

To be sure, grandiose plans for the port in Colombo come after numerous other billion-dollar Chinese investment promises have come to naught. For a decade, China has talked up massive investments in mines and power plants in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have been slow to materialize; big plans for energy projects, like a dam in Myanmar, ultimately went nowhere.

Even when China’s state-backed firms carry out big investment plans, it often just spurs backlash in countries worried about suffering a Chinese bear hug. That’s happened in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Myanmar pulled the plug on a big dam project in part because of concerns about overbearing Chinese influence in Naypyidaw.

Still, for policymakers in the region and in the United States, seemingly mundane construction projects on far-off islands can carry a much deeper meaning.

“The broader strategic game that’s in play is China’s very thoughtful way of reshaping the landscape and the seascape and the security architecture in Asia and the Indo-Pacific,” Roughead said.


Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

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