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[All Politics is Global] A Chinese Radar Base in Sri Lanka's Dondra Bay Threatens Indian Ocean Security

A Chinese radar base at Dondra Bay could track US military activity in Diego Garcia and also movements by Indian, Japanese and Australian ships in the IOR.

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The Dondra Head Lighthouse sits at the southernmost tip of the island of Sri Lanka. It is near where the Chinese have proposed building a new radar base.(Adapted from ©ATenakoon via Wikimedia Commons)

China wants to strengthen surveillance and domination in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Toward this, Beijing has launched a proposition to set up a Chinese radar base in Sri Lanka. The proposed base is in the jungle near Dondra Bay, situated on Sri Lanka's southernmost tip. 

Interestingly, if one sees the map of the Indian subcontinent, Dondra features as only a tiny dot. Sailing straight down south from this bay, one would reach no land mass, before Antarctica!

According to an April 2023 report in The Economic Times, this proposed radar base will focus on monitoring the activities of the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean. In addition, it will monitor other key strategic assets in the region. 

More significantly, the base is expected to become a key force multiplier in observing US military activities on Diego Garcia. The island is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. This overseas asset of the United Kingdom, which is used as a US military base, is located over 1,700 kms southwest of the Dondra Bay. 

China's proposed radar site is said to give it the capability of tracking US military movements from and to the Diego Garcia base.

The Aerospace Information Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has steered this project in the forests of Dondra Bay, according to reports. To put the location in perspective, it is about 155 kms southeast of the capital city, Colombo.

Chinese radar installation
Shown is the entrance is to Dondra's temple. The small but historic city was once a capital of Sri Lanka. (© Banja Frans Mulder via Wikimedia Commons)

An Ancient Capital

Dondra Bay has an interesting historical linkage too. Located at the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, it was once the capital of the island nation. 

Excavations have shown that Dondra was a place of human settlement in the 5th century BC. Once the hub of prospering international trade, it remained one of the most important cities of Sri Lanka until the late 16th century. 

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Local lore says that the temples of Dondra were gilded. And their towers were covered with gems that glittered so much that they could be seen by passing seafarers. Subsequently, these ancient temples were demolished by the Portuguese in 1587 during a war with the Sinhala King. Though it was a prominent city once, Dondra is a small town now.

Chinese radar base
There is a clear, unobstructed view of the Indian Ocean from Dondra Head in Sri Lanka. (©Thilini maheshika via Wikimedia Commons)

Why the Radar Site is a Problem

The successful setting up of this radar setup will pose a vital challenge to Indian, Japanese, and US naval movements in and around the Indian Ocean Region. Moreover, this radar base comes at a time when the potential for New Delhi and Tokyo to establish a stronger collective footprint in South Asia and Africa is huge. 

The area falls in line with the vision to create a free and open Indo-Pacific region. It would link the African continent with India and countries in South, Southeast Asia, and Oceania via sea corridors.

Meanwhile, Japan's policies and approach for operating in the IOR have undergone major transformation. The changes began with the lifting of the ban on Japanese troops from participating in peacekeeping missions. This enabled its Self-Defense Forces to deploy to Iraq in 1992. 

Thirty years later, today, nearly 40 percent of all Japanese Self-Defense Forces' missions have occurred in the IOR. Besides, nearly half of Japan's Official Development Assistance goes to IOR countries. This, too, underscores Japan's presence and role in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese radar base
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, poses for media before his meeting with then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Caught in its Chinese Debt

Sri Lanka, however, continues to remain vulnerable to China's devious strategic regional designs. That is because of the huge Chinese debt it owes to Beijing. 

Exactly a year ago, in my April 2022 column for JAPAN Forward, I argued that Sri Lanka's economic crisis has managed to threaten the Indian Ocean's regional security. Sri Lanka is the nucleus of the Indian Ocean region and the free and open Indo-Pacific. However, it faces unprecedented instability in the wake of Chinese financial entanglements. 

China, quite expectedly, is piercing through Sri Lanka's unprecedented economic crisis that, at one point, had plunged the island nation into bankruptcy. The proposed Chinese radar base is yet another strategic ramification of Colombo's multiple economic crises.

Chinese radar base
Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese scientific research ship, arrives at the port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Chinese Military Use of Sri Lanka Ports Not New

Over the years Chinese naval vessels have been regularly docking at Sri Lanka's Hambantota Port. Meanwhile, China has been financing nearly 85 percent of this $1.5 billion USD deep-water seaport and bunkering facility. Moreover, it is located just 10 nautical miles from one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. 

Due to these features, the Hambantota Port has proven instrumental in Beijing gaining greater access and securing its sea-lanes of communication passing through the northern Indian Ocean and Straits of Malacca.

It is well known that Colombo, having been unable to repay its debt, handed over a controlling equity stake in 2017, in addition to a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port to China. In 2022, Chinese surveillance vessel Yuan Wang 5 docked at the Hambantota Port. Sri Lanka affirmed the stopover, despite India's caution to Colombo. The Chinese vessel docked at Hambantota for nearly a week for "refueling and logistics" supplies.

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China's Intrusion Into the IOR

The Chinese radar base would be the latest addition to Beijing's growing movements in the IOR. And it comes at a time when nations including Japan and India's naval convergence and strategic conjunction is gaining unprecedented regional ground. 

There have been key proposals to address the root of Sri Lanka's vulnerability, including from this author. They are still in a delicately nascent stage for the Japan-India-Sri Lanka trilateral. But they represent perhaps recognition by Tokyo and New Delhi of the need for a more dynamic approach to propel and co-opt Colombo as an important partner in the  regional maritime paradigm.

In this reference a maritime communication network system in Colombo would be of immense utility vis-à-vis the Indian Ocean. The radar base by China should serve as a critical alert for the India, Japan, and US collective to further bolster cooperation towards advancing regional security, prosperity, and stability.

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Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.