Sri Lanka | Debt-burdened Colombo's military decision—made under duress?
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Debt-burdened Colombo’s military decision—made under duress?

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Sri Lanka’s plans to purchase military transport planes are likely to see it opt for the China-manufactured Xian Y-20 heavy-lift aircraft.

Its Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, indicated his preference for Chinese transport aircraft in a recent interview to South China Morning Post. “I have traveled around in some of the Chinese transport planes we have,” he said. Going on to describe them as “good workhorses” Wickremesinghe said he would “always underwrite Chinese military transport planes.” “We will buy two more,” he added.

China’s first indigenous developed military transport plane, the Y-20 was officially inducted into the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in July this year. If Sri Lanka decides to buy it, it will be the first country outside China to receive this aircraft.

With Boeing C-17 Globemaster no longer being manufactured, the Y-20 has emerged the largest military aircraft in production. Codenamed ‘Kunpeng’, after a legendary Chinese bird that could fly thousands of miles, the Y-20 is reportedly capable of flying 4,500 kms with a full load of around 200 tons, which could go up to almost 8,000 kms when carrying 40 tons of freight.

The question is whether Sri Lanka, which isn’t fighting a war at home or facing threats from abroad, needs such aircraft. Importantly, should debt-ridden Sri Lanka be purchasing an aircraft it doesn’t really need?

Ferrying tourists

The Y-20 can be used for transporting soldiers and military equipment but also, it can be deployed for humanitarian missions and disaster relief too.

Interestingly, Sri Lanka is considering using it for tourism. “Since our airports have excess capacity, we will try to get dual-use military planes that can also carry tourists,” Wickremesinghe said.

The government is reportedly considering getting the Sri Lankan Air Force to run a domestic airline. The Y-20 aircraft would be flown then by its pilots.

Neighboring India, which is uneasy with Sri Lanka’s growing ties with China, especially its defense co-operation, is unlikely to be pleased. It has not responded yet to Sri Lanka’s interest in the Y-20 aircraft but is unlikely to remain silent on the matter.

It has reacted sharply in the past. The docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo harbor ruffled feathers in Delhi. And last year when Colombo was considering purchase of 12 JF-17 fighter aircraft jointly developed by China and Pakistan, India is reported to have put Colombo under significant diplomatic pressure. It even offered to sell Sri Lanka its own Tejas aircraft to scupper the Chinese deal.

Deepening ties

Sino-Sri Lankan economic and defense relations go back several decades but it was only in 2005, when Mahinda Rajapakse took over the reins as Sri Lanka’s president that bilateral relations soared. Especially in the final years of the Sri Lankan civil war, China emerged the main weapons supplier to the government.

But this co-operation continued to grow even after the end of the war. In fact, Sri Lanka’s relations with China grew exponentially in the 2010-14 period.

Although Maithripala Sirisena, who unseated Rajapaksa to become the president in January 2015, pledged during his election campaign to steer Sri Lanka into a more balanced relationship between the Asian powers, this was easier said than done. Although his government did try — it suspended the controversial Chinese-funded Colombo Port City Project — it had to revoke that suspension before long. And it has handed over Hambantota port and the Mattala international airport to Chinese companies in exchange for debt relief.

Indian analysts have been warning that China’s grip over countries in India’s neighborhood would tighten as the latter’s debt burden mounted. As these countries sank into debt, their vulnerability to Chinese demands would grow forcing them into economic and defense deals with China that are not in their best interests. Debt-ridden Sri Lanka’s handing over of Hambantota port to the Chinese on lease vindicates such apprehensions.

Is the purchase of the Y-20 aircraft, which Sri Lanka doesn’t really need, another decision under duress from China?

Sudha Ramachandran
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.
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