Colombo, August 7 (Counterpoint): The proposed docking of the Chinese survey and tracking vessel Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota port from August 11 to 17, has touched off a low-intensity conflict between India and China putting Sri Lanka in a cleft stick.
Sri Lanka is desperately in need of financial help from both India and China to tide over an unprecedented financial crisis. Therefore, any standoff between the two giants will exacerbate the island nation’s bid to emerge from the economic quagmire.
After India verbally protested to Sri Lanka against the vessel’s visit (suspecting that it could spy on India’s southern and eastern coasts from Hambantota port) Sri Lanka requested China to postpone the visit to enable consultations. By doing so, Sri Lanka was trying to buy time to resolve the issue in a way that will not alienate it from either New Delhi or Beijing.
But given India’s tough stand on the issue (for more reasons than one), the powers-that-be in New Delhi are unlikely to take “no” for an answer from Colombo. As for China, it is currently in an exceptionally belligerent mood, given the challenge it is facing from the US over Taiwan. And being the single-largest bilateral creditor in Sri Lanka, with power to stall the latter’s debt restructuring efforts, China could throttle the island nation if the latter did not allow the ship to dock under rival India’s influence.
Besides, the geopolitical dimension of the problem, Sri Lanka is also facing a psychological issue: Right from the 1980s, its formal status as a sovereign State, legally free to take any decision it wants, has been constantly eroded by regional and global powers on various issues, such as security, human rights and constitutional arrangements. The proposed visit of Yuan Wang 5 is but the latest challenge to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty in a long series of challnges.
However, both India and China have their arguments to back their respective demands. To take India’s case first, New Delhi considers neighbor Sri Lanka as being part of its sphere of influence and within its defense perimeter. India also sees Lanka as a natural ally with deep historical and contemporary cultural and religious links. New Delhi, therefore, demands a special relationship, which to it means Sri Lanka’s keeping at bay, India’s rivals or any force inimical to it.
Further, India has been assiduously trying to bring Sri Lanka under its political, economic and security umbrella through its “Neighborhood First” policy and maritime security agreements. Under one such security arrangement, Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives are to cooperate in creating. maintaining and operating a mutual Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) scheme. Under the MDA scheme, Sri Lanka should have informed India in advance about the visit of Yuan Wang 5. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Sri Lanka’s President when the vessel was given diplomatic permission to dock. The obligation to inform India as per the MDA scheme was ignored.
The problem was compounded by the fact the successor government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe had not reviewed it keeping the MDA and India’s sensitivity in mind. New Delhi had expected Colombo not to repeat the mistake it made in 2014, when a Chinese nuclear submarine had secretly docked at Colombo port almost coinciding with the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the city. That docking was seen in New Delhi as a hostile act and relations between New Delhi and Colombo soured gravely.
India’s case on the visit of Yuan Wang 5 is further buttressed by the fact that unlike China or any other country for that matter, India has always been the “First Responder” every time Sri Lanka faced a problem, whether it was a natural, economic or a political disaster. New Delhi came to Colombo’s help to curb a leftist insurrection in 1971 and also during the 1988-89 leftist insurrection. To end Tamil separatist militancy in 1987, it sent a Peace Keeping Force to implement the India-Sri Lanka Accord. And during the current economic crisis, India has helped with a US$ 3.8 billion credit line and has actually shipped vital supplies, a contribution not matched by any other country.
In contrast, China’s contribution during the on-going crisis has been negligible. China has been playing hard to get, saying it has no system of taking haircuts on loan repayments. It has offered another loan to pay off a part of its previous loans to Sri Lanka. It has asked Sri Lanka to be financially prudent, avoid taking loans and invite Chinese investments instead. It has also insisted that Sri Lanka sign an FTA with it that had been pending since 2015 due to Lanka’s reservations.
As regards the use of Hambantota port, China sees it as a Chinese port to the extent that it had taken it on lease for 99 years in 2017. It feels that China should have legitimate access to it particularly because Yuan Wang 5 is coming only for “replenishments”. Furthermore, a Chinese military vessel could not be denied berthing when military vessels from other countries, including the US, had berthed there. A US military vessel had even conducted an exercise there.
Be that as it may, Sri Lanka cannot disengage from China. With deep pockets, China is the single-largest bilateral creditor and investor in Sri Lanka with investments totaling over US$ 6.5 billion in the vital infrastructure sector. And its financial aid cannot be matched by any country including India though the latter is eager to help. China also has influence in the IMF from which Sri Lanka is expecting a bailout. A miffed China is unlikely to help Sri Lanka at the IMF.
Sri Lanka is hoping that China will call off the Yuan Wang 5’s visit in view of the very serious reservations expressed by India. If China does it, overcoming its belligerent move, it will bring great relief to Sri Lanka.
However, as a precautionary measure, Sri Lanka has manifestly moved closer to India. In his first formal address to the Sri Lankan parliament as President, President Ranil Wickremesinghe praised India sky high and did not even mention China. “I wish to specially mention the assistance provided by India, our closest neighbor, in our efforts of economic revitalization. The Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given us a breath of life. On behalf of my people and that of my own, I convey gratitude to Prime Minister Modi, the government and the people of India,” Wickremesinghe said.
Even in his speech at the Advocata Institute, the President spoke about bilateral economic ties with India in the energy structure and did not mention China at all.
And on its part, India, whether at the Prime Ministerial level or the Foreign Minister’s level, has described itself as a “dependable and reliable” friend of Sri Lanka’s, based on its “millennia-old civilizational ties”.
Therefore, it appears that, at least at the present juncture, India is on a better wicket than China in Sri Lanka. However, much would depend on Beijing’s response to Colombo’s request for a deferment of Yuan Wang 5’s visit to Hambantota. It could save or sour Sri Lanka’s ties with India and China.