On Tuesday morning, the Yuan Wang 5 belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy sailed into Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, bringing a diplomatic battle to an unsatisfactory end for India. On one side India, backed by the US, threw all it had to prevent the sophisticated surveillance ship from docking at the port. On the other, China moved into arm-twisting mode, making it clear it would do its utmost to stop or stall Sri Lanka’s much-needed IMF loan. Caught in the middle, the Sri Lankans first asked the Chinese ship to stay away from Hambantota, then finally caved in.

A small diplomatic victory for India is that the ship didn’t moor at Hambantota on the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence. But this is the first Chinese military ship to use the port, run by the China Merchants Ports on a 99-year long-lease, since two submarines docked there in 2014. The Chinese have rammed home their determination to use Hambantota at a time when Sri Lanka was at its most vulnerable and desperately needing the IMF loan to get its economy back on track.

For India, what’s especially galling is the Yuan Wang 5 docked at Hambantota even though we’ve given Colombo loans in cash-and-kind of almost $5 billion, including crude oil transfusions when the country’s petrol stations ran dry. Also, the ship is due to stay for six days, far longer than required to carry out what the Chinese say is “replenishment” of essential supplies. The Yuan Wang 5 is what’s called a satellite-and-missile-tracking ship.

Certainly, India’s timely assistance to Sri Lanka has been noticed in that country. Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times commented colourfully that: “Without India’s steady credit lines granted since March, now nearing $5 billion, we would have been left bereft of the bare necessities of modern life, found tottering on the brink of famine, stranded on the economic highway without fuel.”

The Sunday Times added the brutal truth that, “For India, Lanka is an inescapable geographical presence, an island that can be transformed into a veritable enemy aircraft carrier anchored on her doorstep, within strike range.” By contrast, it pointed out that for China, “Lanka is a far-flung dispensable little island, mainly valued for being in the Indian neighbourhood.” There may also be a second reason why the Chinese value Sri Lanka: it could be a kick-off point for an Antarctica mission at some future point.

Military exercise

Move to the other end of India and China looms large once again. For two weeks in October, India and the US will hold high-altitude military exercises at Auli, Uttarakhand, some 90 km from the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The Yudh Abhyas (war practice) exercises will take place at 10,000 ft heights. India and the US have held exercises in Uttarakhand before, but always been at lower altitudes and at around 300 km from the LAC. China has only obliquely hinted at its displeasure over these exercises. Chinese scholar Qian Feng remarked India should be cautious about, “its cooperative activities with the US in the region.”

On the actual Ladakh border too, there’s no question India is firmly on the backfoot. China has been building all-weather barracks at strategic locations like the Depsang Plains and the Galwan Valley near where the original clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers took place in mid-2020. Until a few years ago, both sides patrolled areas in the Depsang Plains where Indian soldiers are now shut out from.

The Drive-Warzone, an online publication focusing on defence issues, says Chinese tented quarters have now been turned into “permanent all-weather encampments”. Crucially, the Chinese are also building bridges and roads, particularly in the Aksai Chin region, which will enable them to reach the frontline much more swiftly. The Warzone reckons the Chinese build-up in Aksai Chin, “effectively puts it in a position where its ability to project military power into the disputed region is relatively uncontestable.”

“Where China in the past maintained a logistics network that could support the presence of several hundred Chinese troops on the frontlines of its territorial claims in Aksai Chin, this upgraded infrastructure and support network now allows it to reinforce many thousands of troops simultaneously,” says The Warzone.

China is also strengthening airbases in Xinjiang and Tibet, some of which are for both civilian and military use. In Xinjiang, it’s hugely expanding facilities at Kashgar and Hotan. Also, a completely new airbase is coming up at Tashkurgan. The Hotan base, particularly, marks “a drastic escalation that is fully oriented towards expanding Chinese airpower in the areas around Ladakh,” said The Warzone.

Should India be more aggressive or is it crucial to stay reasonably quiet about its large and belligerent Wolf Warrior neighbour? The Chinese have become increasingly assertive in recent years, especially since Xi Jinping consolidated his position. Till 2020, the aggression was mainly focused on the South China Sea but now it’s turned in our direction.

India, by contrast, has always played it very cautiously with its powerful neighbour. It’s never made a statement on minorities in Xinjiang, an extremely delicate subject for the Chinese. Similarly, when it comes to Hong Kong, India hasn’t uttered even a murmur.

On Taiwan, it was relatively cautious and simply said it stood by earlier statements. However, India has stopped using the term One China after 2008 when the Chinese laid claim to parts of Arunachal Pradesh. China’s ambassador Sun Weidong posted on the embassy’s website that India should reiterate the One China policy. The fact is India has been forced to reorient its defence structures in the last two years to deal with the Chinese threat. In 2021, the army turned more forces to face China both in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

Similarly, we now have two Rafale squadrons and the one in Ambala can reach the Ladakh border at a short notice. Similarly, a second squadron is based at Hasimara, not far from the Bhutan-Sikkim-Tibet tri-junction. There have been air incidents where China has ignored the agreement not to come within 10 km of the LAC, largely to test the speed of India’s responses. The two air forces are now setting up hotlines to ensure there are no untoward incidents. India has been lucky that Pakistan has not moved to take advantage of India’s Chinese dilemma.

India obviously has to play it super-carefully with its powerful and super-aggressive neighbour which has an economy that’s about five times ours. China’s currently holding drills all around Taiwan. It’s also not giving an inch in Ladakh. And now, simultaneously, it’s opened a new front in Sri Lanka. This is an enemy that must be kept at bay with the greatest skill.