By Asiri Fernando/The Sunday Morning
Colombo, August 13: The arrival of a hydrographic survey vessel of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Hai Yang 24 Hao to Colombo Port last Thursday (10), nearly a year after the controversial visit to the Chinese-managed Hambantota International Port (HIP) by the Chinese satellite tracking/survey vessel the Yuan Wang 5, once again created a buzz in the diplomatic circles.
It is interesting to note that while the Hai Yang 24 Hao’s entry to Colombo Port for replenishment – which it is entitled to under international maritime law – drew concerns from diplomatic quarters, the visit of the purpose-built French electronic intelligence (ELINT) vessel Dupuy de Lôme (A759) in June for replenishment went almost unnoticed.
“No one batted an eyelid when the French ELINT boat came; one whiff of a Chinese visit and red flags lit up like a Christmas tree. The Chinese, in my experience, have not raised any issue about any foreign ship visiting us [Sri Lanka]…” a senior defence official told The Sunday Morning on terms of anonymity.
The Sunday Morning learns that the Chinese vessel has been given strict guidelines to abide by and is being closely watched by the Sri Lanka Navy. In 2020, INS Jamuna – an Indian Navy Hydrographic survey vessel – arrived in Colombo Port and on invitation by the Government undertook a hydrographic survey from Colombo to Galle Ports.
Incidentally, Yuan Wang 5’s sister vessel, the Yuan Wang 6, was photographed in the Singaporean anchorage on Thursday, being replenished by an oiler.
Singapore, which offers ship basing and replenishment options for the US and the UK Navies also routinely services Chinese warships and research vessels.
For Singapore, the service of foreign warships is part of commercial enterprise and diplomacy. This, despite the concerns surrounding China’s action in the South China Sea (SCS), which many countries and international courts have opined is in breach of International Maritime Law.
The Yuan Wang 5’s visit to HIP last year, a poorly-managed foreign policy affair, reinforced opinions that China may be considering the use of the controversial port for future basing plans in the Indian Ocean.
The manner in which the visit of Yuan Wang 5 was approved and communicated, although being delayed by Sri Lanka following strong protests by India, the US, and others, damaged the Sri Lankan Government’s efforts from 2015 to reassure global and regional powers that Sri Lanka would not allow Chinese military activity at HIP.
“Sri Lanka’s new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), the growing India-China and US-China rivalries, the historical role of smaller South Asian countries during the Cold War, and the ongoing discussions between Mauritius and the UK about the Chagos Islands all remind observers of the importance of smaller states in providing basing and access for major powers,” Indian Ocean Security Analyst and East-West Center in Washington, DC Adjunct Fellow Nilanthi Samaranayake wrote on the topic in a United States Institute of Peace publication last week.
Last week, reports indicated that India had raised concerns about Hai Yang 24 Hao’s visit to Colombo. However, the Ministry of Defence said that no such concerns were raised and that both countries (India and Sri Lanka) were ‘on the same page’ regarding the visit.
According to Ministry of Defence Director Media Col. Nalin Herath, Sri Lanka had ensured that there was no misunderstanding between the Indian Ocean neighbours regarding the Chinese vessel’s visit.
Herath would not comment on whether Sri Lanka had postponed the Chinese vessel’s visit, which The Sunday Morning reliably learns the island had done. The Indian High Commission in Colombo was not available for comment on the matter.
Last month, the Cabinet of Ministers approved the introduction of a new SOP for granting diplomatic clearance to foreign sea vessels and foreign government or military aircraft visiting Sri Lanka. However, The Sunday Morning reliably learns that the new SOP is still being finalised and is likely to come into effect by the end of the month or early-September.
The Sunday Morning has reported in the past about the review of the previous protocol, which was extensively debated following strong diplomatic pressure from India, the United States, and other countries. The review was triggered following the controversial Yuan Wang 5 episode last year.
The visit of the Yuan Wang 5 was one of the first major foreign policy tests for the Ranil Wickremesinghe-Dinesh Gunawardena Government. Since the incident, which could have been better managed by Sri Lanka, the Government has been trying to convince India and others that Sri Lanka will not allow any basing of the Chinese military in Sri Lanka.
It is learnt that the SOP and other security-related matters were discussed during the recent historic meeting between Sri Lankan President Wickremesinghe and Indian Premier Modi.
Approved But Being Finalised
According to the President’s Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor Sagala Ratnayaka, Sri Lanka’s new SOP to grant permission for diplomatic requests regarding vessels and aircraft using Sri Lankan waters, airspace, and ports has been approved.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Rathnayaka said that the Government had appointed a committee which included key line ministries and the intelligence agencies, which had consultatively drafted the new SOP and cleared it with the Attorney General’s Department prior to obtaining Cabinet approval.
When asked if the SOP would be updated regularly, Rathnayake said that “there is always room for improvement”.
When The Sunday Morning contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) about the matter, Minister Ali Sabry confirmed the SOP was approved, but would not respond on why the documentation had not been updated on the ministry website.
The MFA website carried the previous set of regulations on its website as of Thursday (10).
A spokesperson for the MFA Public Diplomacy Division told The Sunday Morning that the new SOP would be published ‘soon’ and that the website would be updated accordingly.
When asked, Col. Herath said that the approved SOP was being finalised and would be published soon. It is customary for the MFA website to carry the SOPs.
Warship and Research Vessel Visits
Data obtained from the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) indicates that since January 2020, nearly 160 foreign warships and five ‘scientific research vessels’ have visited Sri Lankan ports as of last Thursday (10 August).
The highest number of warships that have called at Sri Lanka’s ports during the period are from India and Japan.
According to the SLN, 107 warships have called at Colombo Port during the period, with 35 calling on Trincomalee in the east coast and only 10 warships calling at Hambantota Port. Following the Yuan Wang 5 episode, in 2023 the SLN did not report any foreign warships calling at HIP to date (12).
It is reliably learnt that warships and research vessel visits and ocean surveys will be strictly regulated.
Warships under the new SOP will have to disclose all their active and passive sensors, including those which work underwater. Warships and aircraft will also have to disclose their complete weapons profile, including if they are carrying hazardous chemicals and radiological or biological agents, it is learnt.
It is learnt that if any chemical or other substance is to be released into the territorial waters of Sri Lanka for research purposes, information on such substances should be provided when applying for authorisation. Further, all instruments used aboard the research vessels and the geographic area they will cover have to be informed about in advance and approved.
The move also comes in the wake of concerns that foreign entities are mapping the Sri Lankan Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for seabed data, including that of possible mineral deposits.
It is also learnt that research vessels which wish to survey or call at port will be given permission depending on if there is local scientific participation. The SOP is expected to enforce that Sri Lankan officials will have access to all data derived from the authorised research.
It is understood that the Government had received a proposal from one line ministry to evaluate each ‘research vessel’ survey request on a case by case basis.