COLOMBO // Fighter jets in formation rushed overhead while tanks and artillery mounted vehicles rolled solemnly past. This was the scene last week in Colombo as Sri Lanka officially celebrated its victory over the Tamil Tigers who had waged a separatist war in the north and east of the country for more than 25 years. It was a day many in Sri Lanka thought they would never see.
The unprecedented parade was designed to showcase the country's armed forces that, over the past three years, have been transformed from a badly equipped, poorly trained and demoralised force into a well-armed, motivated and highly trained counterinsurgency outfit. But the parade also demonstrated the extent to which Sri Lanka's foreign allies had been instrumental in the victory - especially China.
There were tanks and planes from Russia and mobile radar units from Israel but the majority of the hardware on display was Chinese made. Defence analysts say China's support - both diplomatically and in terms of arms sales - played a key role in Sri Lanka's ability to secure a military victory over Tamil Tigers after many western countries stopped selling weapons to Colombo, citing concerns over human rights abuses.
China's reasons for supporting Sri Lanka are partly domestic. It has long held that nations should be allowed to deal with separatist movements internally to help avoid international involvement over the issues of Xinjiang and Tibet. But one of the main reasons China threw its weight behind Colombo's war is located at the southern tip of the teardrop shaped island. It is here, near the sleepy fishing town of Hambantota, that China is constructing a US$1 billion deep water port that will provide docking and refuelling facilities for the thousands of ships that ferry oil and raw materials from Africa and the Gulf though the Indian Ocean to China every year.
The deal to lease the land to China was signed in March 2007, shortly after Sri Lanka announced its push to recapture the Tiger-held territory. Between then and now China has supplied the weapons, diplomatic support and aid Sri Lanka has needed to win the war. "China has rendered invaluable help to Sri Lanka in its war effort against the Tamil Tigers," said Col R Hariharan, a former head of military intelligence in the Indian army who served in a peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka in the 1980s.
But the port is geopolitically controversial. Some military analysts see Hambantota as one of the most recent additions to China's "string of pearls" - a network of ports and listening posts along its maritime trade routes to service, and maybe one day, defend, the supplies of raw materials it needs to keep its economy growing. The strategy was first outlined in a leaked US defence intelligence report in 2005.
"China is building strategic relationships along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea in ways that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China's energy interests, but also to serve broad security objectives," said the report, which was prepared for the then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. The strategy was also discussed a year later in a report by Lt Col Christopher J Pehrson, of the Pentagon's air staff.
At the time, China's string of pearls included a deep water port at Gwadar in Pakistan, container shipping facility in Chittagong in Bangladesh and a second dee pwater port at Sittwe in Myanmar. Since then, it has added Hambantota and leased land for another port - possibly for submarines - on the island of Marao, in the Maldives. The Chinese government has consistently maintained that the ports are for commercial use only.
"As of now they are commercial enterprises," said Col Hariharan. "But there is nothing commercial about their strategic significance in times of war." China began selling arms to Sri Lanka in the 1990s and quickly became one of the country's biggest suppliers. In 1998, the European Union issued guidelines that advised member nations against supplying weapons to countries fighting internal conflicts or with poor human rights records. In 2007, the US stopped selling arms to Sri Lanka.
"For the decision to go back to war, it was important Sri Lanka had a secure supply and that came from China," said Seimon Wezeman, senior researcher at the Stockholm Institute for Peace Studies, which monitors international arms transfers. From 2006, the army began a massive recruitment drive, increasing recruits to 180,000 from 116,000, according to official army statistics. Military expenditure also grew at 40 per cent a year.
In April 2007, Sri Lanka signed a classified $37.6 million deal to buy arms and ordnance for its army and navy, according to Jane's Defence weekly. In addition, after a series of daring aerial attacks on the military in 2007 by the Tigers, China also supplied 3-D radar equipment for a base in Mirigama, on the outskirts of Colombo. Udaya Nanayakkara, the spokesman for Sri Lanka's army, acknowledged that the army had bought the majority of its weapons from China over the past three years.
China also gave Sri Lanka six F-7 fighter jets last year, one of which shot down three of the Tigers' light aircraft in October. Pakistan, possibly at China's request, has also supplied Sri Lanka with ammunition. China massively increased its aid to Sri Lanka. Last year it replaced Japan as the country's largest donor when it gave $1.1bn, up from several million in 2005. But just as important for Sri Lanka has been China's diplomatic support.
With a veto on the UN Security Council, China and Russia were able to prevent discussion of how Sri Lanka's army executed the final stages of the war, even when some member nations were calling for a ceasefire to allow civilians to escape fighting. "Throughout, China has been able to help Sri Lanka fend off international criticism," said B Raman of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. "China has supported Sri Lanka in every way." firstname.lastname@example.org