Chinese managed Hambantota Port of Sri Lanka: Emerging new threat for India

Dr G Shreekumar Menon

Hambantota Port

The recent acquisition of the Hambantota port by China, opens up a new flank to pressurise India. Southern India faces the prospects of a Chinese attack, in any future Indo-China conflict. If Himalayas, representing the head of India, where the Chinese have been continually doing hair-cutting, Hambantota will be the place from where they will henceforth perform regular foot-massage.  Nothing could be more discomforting, if we consider the military and strategic assets located in Southern part of India. 

The strategically located Hambantota International Port has been handed over to China Merchants Port Holdings (CM Port) on a 99-year lease by the Sri Lankan government with a payment of US$1.12 billion as the island nation couldn’t pay back the funding capital debt to China.

China’s String of Pearls

Hambantota is close to the Asian and European international shipping routes, Suez Canal, Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca. These sea routes through Hambantota are used by about 36,000 ships, including 4,500 oil tankers. The port saves about three days of sailing time and fuel.

The strategic value of this port for the Chinese is immense. Hitherto the Indo-China conflicts have been focussed on the Indo-Tibetan-China border, which is about 3440 Kms long, having mountainous terrain, rivers, lakes and snow-caps which keep shifting periodically adding to the opacity of the international border. Bhutan and Nepal also face border issues with China but are in no position to challenge the Chinese effrontery. The recent acquisition of the Hambantota port by China, opens up a new flank to pressurise India. Southern India faces the prospects of a Chinese attack, in any future Indo-China conflict. If Himalayas, representing the head of India, where the Chinese have been continually doing hair-cutting, Hambantota will be the place from where they will henceforth perform regular foot-massage.  Nothing could be more discomforting, if we consider the military and strategic assets located in Southern part of India. 

The scope of this article is being focussed only on Tamilnadu and Kerala, as these are going to be the new frontline States to confront the next wave of Chinese interference. Hambantota port is just 290 miles or about 450 kilometres, from India’s southern tip – Kanyakumari.

 Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) which is the largest nuclear power station in India, is situated in Koodankulam in the Tirunelveli district of the state of Tamil Nadu. The distance from Hambantota would be within just 500 kilometres.

INS Kattabomman the premier communication establishment, of the Indian Navy is located at South Vijayanarayanam, near Tirunelveli. The 3000-acre base enclosed in a 22 km perimeter wall hosts the VLF transmitting grid, which is the only one of its kind in the country. The distance from Hambantota would be again within the 500 kilometres range.

In addition to the above Tamilnadu hosts other Naval establishments at Chennai, Uchipuli, and Arakkonam.

Thanjavur Air Force Station of the Indian Air Force is located in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, and is home to No. 222 squadron of the IAF’s Sukhoi Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft. In addition, there is the Tambaram Air Force Station at Chennai.

Sulur Air Force Station located at Sulur near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, is India’s second largest air base after Hindon AFS. It is the air-base which is responsible for protection of India’s sea area. The second squadron of the indigenous Tejas Mk-1 fighter aircraft has been operationalised at Sulur.

The Wellington Cantonment at Nilgiris is home to The Madras Regimental Centre and The Defence Services Staff College.  

There are four Ordnance factories in Tamilnadu, including the famous Heavy Vehicles Factory (HVF), at Avadi, Chennai.

The prestigious Officers Training Academy (OTA) of the Indian Army that train officers for the Short Service Commission is located at Chennai.

India’s first Defence Corridor is fast taking shape in the   cities – Salem, Hosur and Trichy, all part of the planned defence corridor linking Chennai and Bengaluru – companies currently engaged in making textiles, automobile parts and engineering goods are diversifying into defence manufacturing.

Madras Atomic Power Station

Madras Atomic Power Station located at Kalpakkam about 80 kilometres south of Chennai, is a comprehensive nuclear power production, fuel reprocessing, and waste treatment facility that includes plutonium fuel fabrication for fast breeder reactors.

Kerala’s capital city Thiruvananthapuram is just 528 kilometres from Hambantota. India’s premier space establishment ISRO and the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) are located here as also the Southern Air Command of the Indian Air Force. The IAF’s 17th Forward Base Support Unit (FBSU) oversees the Indian Ocean from the Straits of Malacca to that of Hormuz, one of the world’s busiest sea routes. It also houses a maritime strike squadron- a fleet of Brahmos equipped Sukhoi- 30 MKI.

The 91st Infantry Brigade is based at Thiruvananthapuram. The country’s first amphibious brigade took shape here.

The Brahmos Aerospace, at Thiruvananthapuram manufactures certain critical parts of the Brahmos missiles.

Up north at Kochi is the Southern Naval Command INS Venduruthy. INS Garuda the Naval air station is also based here. Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL) is the largest shipbuilding and maintenance facility in India. Currently it is building the 45,000 tonne aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.

The Naval Armament Depot (NAD) is based at Alwaye near Kochi.

Kochi is 689 kilometres away from Hambantota.

Further north, Kannur is home to Defence Security Corps, which is responsible for providing security cover to the defence installations of the three services. It is the sixth largest corps of the Army.

Kerala has four functional international airports at Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Calicut and Kannur.

Just on the northern border of Kerala, Mangalore and Udupi in Karnataka State is where the underground strategic crude oil storages are located.

The naval base INS Dweeprakshak is located at Kavaratti island in the Lakshadweep archipelago. 

The above two Southern States of India – Tamilnadu and Kerala, will be within short striking range from Hambantota, if China decides to locate offensive weaponry in the port. All defence and strategic assets located in these two States will be under constant Chinese surveillance, and any conflagration up North will henceforth have repercussions deep down South.

That Sri Lanka would sell Hambantota Port to the Chinese would never have occurred to our defence planners and strategists. This move by China to buy up assets of countries that have fallen into its debt trap opens a new dimension in international relations. This scenario is going to get replicated in different parts of the globe. What would America do if the Chinese went on an asset buying spree in impoverished Latin American countries?

How have things gravitated to this extent of China buying up assets of other countries? We have heard of Gulf countries buying up entertainment companies, iconic hotels and supermarket chains in the West, China also is doing this. But, buying up strategic ports and other installations will dramatically change the power equation. Next it will be airports or even defence establishments. Poor countries caught in China’s debt trap have no option. This is the same strategy that East India Company adopted to annexe kingdoms in India.  

The new master strategist is Chinese premier Xi Jinping, and he is not far away from the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, nestling at the feet of Bharat Mata.

How do we counter this new threat? XI Jinping is no ordinary leader, he has a dream in his eyes, a design in his mind, a lethal gameplan up his sleeve and most important, unfettered by any political constraints. Contrast this with India’s democracy fitted with multiple retro rockets – belligerent and non-cooperative Opposition, antiquated justice delivery system, under-performing bureaucracy, a plethora of NGO’s working constantly against the government, negative and biased media, and an assortment of Rights groups whose avowed policy is to belittle the nation. How then to tackle a powerful adversary like Xi Jinping? A military solution is simply ruled out. How do we avert a catastrophe, yet eliminate the Chinese threat?

Xi Jinping and his comrades, constantly rummage through Chinese history for inspiration and motivation to keep their country surging ahead. More than 5000 years of the country’s history is preserved assiduously and taught to instil pride in the Chinese people. A galaxy of heroes is constantly remembered, prominent being General Yue Fei, Mulan a woman warrior, brilliant General Han Xin, Lady Mu Guiying, Sun Tzu, Admiral Zheng He, and Mao Zedong, amongst others. Contrast this with India’s history which glorifies invaders, foreigners, while relegating local heroes. How many Indian war heroes do our school and college texts even mention? But the crisis facing us now is how do we tackle an adversary surcharged with stories of past valour and glory and itching to repeat them? 

Let us also draw inspiration and motivation from our ancestors, who handled crisis situations very deftly and with unparalleled ingenuity.

Wind back all the way to 327 BC, when the unbeaten young conqueror, Alexander the Great, began his conquest of India. At the border of the then Bharat Varsha, his philosophical encounter with a learned, naked Brahmin Saint known as Dandamis (possibly Greek rendering of Dandi-Swami), took place at Takshila. The philosophical discourse that took place between them is recorded by the Greeks as the famous Alexander-Dandamis colloquy. The Saint changed the entire perspective of the Warrior, and he retreated back to Greece. As prophesied by Saint Dandamis, Alexander died enroute to Greece, at the age of 33. How a single naked sage, just by engaging in a philosophical dialogue with a dreaded conqueror, changed the course of History, it can happen only in India. But, unfortunately, our doctored History books for students skip this landmark incident.

The First Opium War (1839-42) witnessed the clash of British-Indian forces against the Qing Dynasty of China represented by Emperor Daoguang. On the British side was the shrewd businessman William Jardine, and Lord Palmerston Foreign Secretary of Great Britain. They identified the Opium Poppy Plant to become the bete noire of China. Subsequently, the Second Opium War (1856-1860) was fought between China versus Britain-France-India combine. The Opium Poppy Plant caused the ruination of China, which to this day refers to the period as ‘Century of Humiliation’. Our doctored History lessons do not mention the role of 1 Company Madras Rifles, 2nd Madras Native Infantry, 6th Madras Native Infantry, 14th Madras Native Infantry and the Bengal Army which fought in the First Opium War, and the Sikh Regiment, Madras Regiment, Bombay Native Infantry, and the Ludhiana Rifles that fought the Second Opium War.  The Opium Poppy plant of India decimated the Chinese Qing dynasty, and gifted them their unforgettable ‘Century of Humiliation’. But, our doctored History text books for students will never mention this. 

The great Chola King, Rajendra Chola had a formidable naval fleet of around one thousand ships, and was in full control of Indian and Sri Lankan coastlines. It was the largest navy in Asia. All ships passing through the Indian Ocean had to pay taxes to the Chola Empire. His empire held full sway over Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and up to Cambodia. His successor Surya Varma II built the Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu Temple in the world. How does India honour this great Naval Chieftain? There is not a single Indian warship named after him, not a single naval base named after him. We have such a great paucity for names that the indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) being built at Cochin Shipyard has to be again named INS Vikrant. Contrast this with China who has built memorials for the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He, who commanded a flotilla of 317 ships and around 28,000 men, and used Calicut port in Kerala as a base. India is yet to understand the importance of inspiring coming generations, and celebrating its heroes.

Mahatma Gandhi, who took on the might of the British Empire with his unique non-cooperation movement, is often not interpreted properly. Gandhi realised that any armed uprising against the mighty British Empire. would never yield the desired results. He was inwardly conscious of the fact that Indians were slaves under a plethora of foreigners for centuries. Arabs, Turks, Persians, Mongols, Afghans, Central Asians, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and the British, had ruled brutally and destroyed all self-confidence and dignity in Indians. Slavery had come to be accepted as something inevitable for a pacifist people. To lead the slaves into an armed uprising would have been totally disastrous. Gandhi knew that if he ever attempted to lead an armed rebellion, he like many of his predecessors and contemporaries, would have to go to the Cellular jail in Andamans to face the gallows. It was a masterstroke of his to realise that what the slaves desired most was cessation from backbreaking toil and wretched labour. He exhorted to the slaves to cease all work, coined unique terms like ‘Hartal’, ‘Satyagraha’, and for the benefit of the Britishers told them that it meant ‘Non-cooperation’.  The Tuticorin Cigar addict Winston Churchill who was confronting the military might of the Germans and Japanese, had no idea what this “half-naked Fakir” was up to. The slaves simply loved the idea of just not working and the Empire where the sun never set, meekly accepted that the game was over. The British were defenceless and powerless before a simple phrase that Mahatma Gandhi borrowed from the Adi Parva of Mahabharata: ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma’.

Xi Jinping

Premier Xi Jinping should be reminded that for his distant ancestors India was TIANZHU, meaning Heaven. How dare President Xi Jinping challenge Heaven? Heaven retaliates in a hundred thousand unknown ways, Mr. Xi Jinping.

Dr G Shreekumar Menon, IRS (Rtd) Ph. D (Narcotics),
Former Director General National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, & Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India; Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, USA; Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA; 
Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A. AOTS Scholar, Japan

Edit Note:

China has this Belt and Road initiative which funds at next to nothing interest rate, and if the borrower defaults on payments, China has a right to lease the assets. China has similar arrangements with Fiji and is negotiating with Papua New Guinea as well. Unless other international countries match this, rest of the world is in trouble. China has said it is just doing what English and Europeans did

One comment

  1. A well narrated article. The real picture on what is going to happen in the world especially in and around Indian Ocean has been authored in advance itself. The confiscation of Hambanthotta should have been an eye opener for GoI. India should take immediate counter measures on her own rather than banking on QUAD or so. However, it is true that China becomes more and more powerful financially, militarily, scientifically, etc. Their controlling of Covid Pandemic is also praiseworthy though it is still being considered that the Corona virus is jumped from the virology Lab in Wuhan


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