South Asian nations eager to increase defensive capabilities
Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan arrived in Sri Lanka Monday on the first stop of a two-nation tour which experts said will strengthen security and stability in the region. Chang will also visit Nepal.
Chang is accompanied by the deputy commander of the Chinese navy, Su Zhiqian, during the visit, which comes at the invitation of the defense ministries of Sri Lanka and Nepal.
China has maintained close military ties with Sri Lanka from the beginning of this century when Colombo was fighting a militant insurgency, experts said. China provided military assistance to the Sri Lankan government at the latter's request to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels, Chu Yin, an associate professor at the University of International Relations, told the Global Times.
Bilateral relations between the two countries became even closer after the civil war ended, Chu noted.
Defense Minister Chang's predecessor Liang Guanglie visited Sri Lanka in 2012 and offered military aid to help the country build up its defense capability.
Military cooperation between the two countries is focused on defense purposes and regional security, and is not targeted at other countries in the region, Chu said.
China has a lot of interests in Sri Lanka, including port construction, personnel safety and investment, and Sri Lanka's geographic location in the Indian Ocean is also important, so the military cooperation and assistance to Sri Lanka also serve China's own interests.
The Sino-Sri Lankan cooperation to counter nontraditional security threats, such as anti-piracy, joint search and rescue on the sea, and counter-terrorism, is increasing, Wang Yiwei, director of the Center for International Studies at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times.
For China's One Belt and One Road initiative, economic cooperation is not enough to guarantee the success of the initiative, and China needs to deepen military cooperation with Sri Lanka and Nepal because these countries are at key geographical locations.
Besides benefitting economically from their cooperation projects with China, countries in the region can also enhance their security through the military cooperation.
"Many countries in South Asia are worried about India's military power in the region, so they would like to have cooperation with other countries to increase self-defense capability," Wang said.
Chu said the Kingdom of Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975, which showed that India has ulterior motives with regard to its smaller neighbors. "These smaller countries share the same concern about India," he said.
India is not supportive of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is a significant part of the Belt and Road initiative. Chang's visit to Sri Lanka and Nepal may help India understand that China is welcomed by not only Pakistan, but also other countries in the region, Wang added.
After Sri Lanka, Chang will also go to Nepal, and Reuters reported that Nepal, as a "natural buffer between China and India," will see China's military influence increase in the country which will challenge India's "long-held position as the dominant regional power."
On December 29, 2016, Chinese defense ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun said at a press conference in Beijing that China and Nepal are planning to hold the first joint military exercise between the two armies, and it will happen in 2017. "Further information will be released at appropriate time," he said.
Indian Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat will also visit Nepal from March 28 to 31, close on the heels of Chang's visit, the Hindustan Times reported on Sunday.
The main purpose of the visit is to confer an honorary title of the Nepal Army to General Rawat, said Nepal Army spokesperson Gen Tara Bahadur Kari, the Hindustan Times reported.
Issues related to selling military hardware and software to Nepal will also come up for discussion during his trip. Nepal makes almost all military and defense purchases from India.
That means that Nepal is trying to strike a balance between China and India, Chu said.