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International Relations Foreign policy Regional Stability

China’s Strategic Foothold in the Indian Ocean

Political Bureau member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Mr. Liu Yunshan with President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the President’s House. Source: Flickr, Sudath Silva

Since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, China has not only emerged as the main strategic actor in Sri Lanka, it has also replicated a familiar set of development and partnership strategies in the process. For instance, in 2012 Chinese companies completed the construction of a deep water port at Hambantola at an estimated cost of $450 million. More recently, the Sri Lankan Port authority announced a Chinese-backed $1.4 billion deal for the reclamation of 568 acres of land and construction of a new port near Colombo. Accordingly, China’s growing involvement in the Sri Lankan maritime sector is starting to bear all the hallmarks of its development of the Pakistani port of Qwadar. Currently managed by China Overseas Port Holdings, the port stands at the east entrance of the Straits of Hormuz and is set to be linked by road, rail and pipeline infrastructure to the resource-rich Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Like the Qwadar-Xinjiang Development Corridor project, China also views its growing interests in Sri Lanka as a geopolitical game changer. Chinese strategists have long feared that adversaries could close the Straits of Malacca in the event of conflict, thereby starving China of energy supplies and other strategic imports. In this respect, maritime facilities located on the island potentially allow Beijing to exert greater influence over the Straits. Yet, this has not gone unnoticed by South Asia’s traditional maritime and regional power India, which is also worried about the growing military partnership between China and Sri Lanka.

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Security

Piracy: A Winning Business Model

Playing cat and mouse as pirate operations become a lot more sophisticated than this, photo: UK Ministry of Defense Crown Copyright/flickr

Pirates in the Indian Ocean have struck once again: Within two days, groups of pirates hijacked two more tankers, bringing the total of ships being held hostage in the region to a whopping 30 (with 700 crew members on board).

And the latest hijackings are likely to net the pirates more money than ever, with one of the Greek-owned tankers carrying more than $200 million (yes, MILLION) worth of oil. In addition to the human cost of these tragedies, the cost to the global oil market is potentially significant as it tightens already uncomfortable choking points in the transfer of oil from the Middle East to the rest of the world. Although pirate attacks are getting less frequent, their audacity, sophistication and sheer reach is growing as funds available to pirate groups in Somalia in particular have mushroomed.

Indeed Navfor spokesman Wing Commander Paddy O’Kennedy notes that:

What we are dealing with here is a business model that is so good, that for a matter of tens of thousands of dollars you can put together a pirate action group, you can send it to sea and if you are lucky and hit the jackpot, you can come back with a vessel that within six months will bring you a return of nine-and-a-half million dollars. We are the first to admit we are not deterring piracy.

So, as more money flows to pirates and international naval task forces continue to struggle to secure shipping lanes that keep the world economy moving, the question arises: Is piracy in the Indian Ocean and in the Gulf of Aden a scourge that is here to stay? And if naval task forces can do little else except damage control, should the international community not be looking to address the root causes of the lawlessness and misery that drives piracy in the region?

Isn’t it time that the international community take another hard look at what is happening in Somalia and to the Somali people?

For a wealth of background information and analysis on this issue, see our Digital Library holdings under the keyword ‘Piracy on the High Seas‘.