Colombo, August 9 (Counterpoint): The Chinese Foreign Ministry told the media in Beijing on Monday, that it is “senseless” to invoke “security concerns” to “pressure” Sri Lanka to deny entry to Chinese ships that are carrying out legitimate tasks.
Without naming India (referring to it as a “third-party”) the Chinese Foreign Ministry readout said that as a sovereign country, Sri Lanka has the right to conduct its foreign relations without interference from third parties.
Here is the readout of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) statement at the presser:
“The MOFA thinks that Sri Lanka is a transport hub in the Indian ocean. Many scientific exploration ships including those from China have stopped at the ports of Sri Lanka for resupplies. China has always exercised freedom of navigation in the high seas and fully respects the jurisdiction of coastal states in respect of scientific exploration activities within their jurisdictional waters.”
“Sri Lanka is a sovereign state. It can develop relations with other countries, in light of its own development interest. Cooperation between Sri Lanka and China are independently chosen by the two countries based on common interests. It doesn’t target a third party. Citing security concerns is senseless, to pressure Sri Lanka.”
“China urges the relevant parties to see China’s scientific exploration in a reasonable and sensible way and stop disturbing normal exchange of cooperation between China and Sri Lanka.”
China Determined to dock Yuan Wang 5
Thus, it is now clear that China will make it a point to see that Yuan Wang 5 berths as planned at the Hambantota harbor in South Sri Lanka on August 11, and stay for replenishment till August 17, as per the original schedule.
India had objected to the Chinese vessel’s visit because, in its view, the vessel’s primary purpose was to dock in Hambantota for as long as a week, not to replenish, but to spy on sensitive installations in South India. India’s grievance was also that even as Sri Lanka and India were part of an institution called “Security and Growth for All in the Region” or SAGAR, meant to build an inclusive and cooperative approach to regional security, Sri Lanka did not inform India about its decision to allow the Chinese vessel to dock at Hambantota.
India delivered a demarche to Sri Lanka on the issue. Subsequently, its Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar reportedly took up the matter in his meeting with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Ali Sabry, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ conference in Cambodia.
Under Indian pressure, the Sri Lankan government requested the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo to “defer” the visit of the vessel to enable “consultations”. The Chinese Ambassador reportedly said that he would refer the matter to Beijing. Beijing rejected the request for postponing the visit saying that it had no basis in normal international relations.
The latest communique from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it “wishes to reaffirm the enduring friendship and excellent relations between Sri Lanka and China which remain on a solid foundation, as reiterated most recently by the two Foreign Ministers Ali Sabry and Wang Yi at a bilateral meeting in Phonm Penh, Cambodia on 4 August 2022.”
“At this first meeting between the two Foreign Ministers, Minister Sabry referred to Sri Lanka’s firm commitment to the one-China policy which has been a consistent principle in the country’s foreign affairs”.
What will Sri Lanka Do?
From the above statement it appears that Sri Lanka may be trying to get China’s cooperation on the ship issue in return for firm support to China on the Taiwan or the One-China issue. This could be based on the assessment that for China, the One China issue is far more important than docking a vessel in Hambantota port.
Sri Lanka needs both India and China for economic support at this critical juncture when its finances are in a shambles. It is heavily dependent on a bailout by the IMF, which is a Western institution and in which both the US and India have clout, although China is also a member with influence.
Sri Lanka cannot alienate India because it now owes New Delhi US$ 3.8 billion, borrowed to procure essential supplies such as fuel, food and medicines.
China is also a key contributor to the Sri Lankan economy as it has funded infrastructure development to the tune of US$ 6.5 billion since 2010. Sri Lanka is also depending on China to agree to a “haircut” in the money due to it as repayment of its loans. If China does not take a haircut, the IMF would not be able to persuade other creditors to take a “haircut”. This year, the repayment due to creditors is to the tune of US$ 7 billion. In April this year, Sri Lanka declared that it is defaulting on repayments pending an IMF bailout.
The spat over the Chinese ship could not have come at a worse time. The Ranil Wickremesinghe government is facing domestic political instability of a high order. The process of forming an all-party government is getting into knots because of political wrangling and unceasing efforts by the opposition to overthrow President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Trade unions and protesters under the “Aragalaya” umbrella are planning a massive agitation on Tuesday seeking the ouster of the Rajapaksa-backed Ranil Wickremesinghe government.
Backed by the media, the Aragalaya is hoping to see a replay of the mid-July success when it had forced the previous President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to flee to Singapore through a mix of peaceful and violent action.
Colombo would now be hoping and praying that either China or India would back off and let it attend to the more pressing task of providing essentials to the people, restoring political stability and getting an IMF bailout.
But geopolitical powers are hard and unforgiving hegemons. And, as in politics, in the world of international relations too, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.