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Sri Lanka’s Moment of Reckoning: Time to Choose Between Indian Humanitarian Ships, Chinese Spy Vessels

By: Akshay Narang

Last Updated: August 12, 2022, 09:05 IST

New Delhi, India

Recently, it was announced that Yuan Wang 5, a high-tech Chinese spy ship, would dock at Sri Lanka's Hambantota port. For New Delhi, this development seemed to suggest that China was now leveraging its Hambantota gambit. (Pic/brisl.org)

Recently, it was announced that Yuan Wang 5, a high-tech Chinese spy ship, would dock at Sri Lanka's Hambantota port. For New Delhi, this development seemed to suggest that China was now leveraging its Hambantota gambit. (Pic/brisl.org)

For Sri Lanka, it may be time to understand that Indian humanitarian ships carrying relief material cannot dock on banks surrounded by Chinese spy vessels. Colombo is literally trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds

Sri Lanka has been passing through an unprecedented crisis. All this while, India has been providing all necessary aid and assistance to the island nation. On the other hand, Beijing remained conspicuously absent while Sri Lanka struggled to find its way out of a major political and economic crisis. China’s indifference to the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, partly caused by predatory Chinese loans to Colombo, seemed to show its declining interest in the island nation.

However, China has started getting involved in Sri Lanka yet again. Its intention is, of course, not to help Sri Lanka in its state of crisis. Beijing wants to dock a spy vessel at the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which has raised security concerns in New Delhi. Now, a three-way diplomatic confrontation is at play. Sri Lanka, on its part, seems to be trying to keep both New Delhi and Beijing in good humour. But if the Chinese spy ships come into picture, then it may be time for Sri Lanka to make a choice between Indian humanitarian vessels and Chinese spy ships.

Recently, it was announced that Yuan Wang 5, a high-tech Chinese spy ship, would dock at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. For New Delhi, this development seemed to suggest that China was now leveraging its Hambantota gambit.

Seen as a living reminder of Beijing’s debt-trap policies, the port is presently leased to the Chinese for 99 years. The port doesn’t have any commercial utility. This is the reason why Sri Lanka couldn’t generate sufficient revenue from Hambantota to repay the loan it had taken from China for this port.

So, the only plausible use of this port from China’s perspective was to spy on Indian military installations. This naturally emerged as a major security concern for New Delhi. India’s defence establishment has said that it would closely follow the controversial visit of the Chinese spy vessel.

The Ministry of External Affairs too has made it clear that India carefully monitors any development affecting its security interests.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued an unusually sharp statement that read, “Sri Lanka is a sovereign state. It can develop relations with other countries in the light of its own development interests. China urges relevant parties to see China’s scientific explorations in a reasonable and sensible way and stop disturbing the normal exchange between China and Sri Lanka.”

What is Sri Lanka trying to do?

Sri Lanka is trying to do what small island countries sandwiched between two big powers generally try to do — play the two powers against each other and get the best of both worlds.

Sri Lanka definitely doesn’t want to irk India. New Delhi is a reliable neighbour which has shown unparalleled enthusiasm in helping Colombo amidst the ongoing economic crisis in the island nation. So, keeping India in good humour is a matter of prudence for Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, Colombo doesn’t want to cross swords with Beijing either. While China did not come to Colombo’s rescue amidst the political and economic crisis that was unfolding in Sri Lanka a few weeks ago, Sri Lankan politicians don’t seem to be ready to give Beijing the cold shoulder.

First, small island countries are usually reluctant to take on a power as big as China due to the fear of an adverse reaction by the Chinese. And second, Chinese influence is strongly embedded in Sri Lankan politics. While the Rajapaksas were seen as China’s best friends in the island nation, even the incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe does have a soft corner for Beijing. As the Prime Minister under former President Maithripala Sirisena, Wickremesinghe had taken more loans from China for expressways than what the Rajapaksas had borrowed.

So, you come down to a Sri Lankan government that is monkey-balancing between India and China. When Beijing decided to send its research ship to Hambantota, Colombo couldn’t say no to China but it still tried to address India’s concerns. A Sri Lankan Minister claimed that the Chinese ship would be taking a week-long stopover at Hambantota only for “refuelling and replenishment”.

Colombo also requested Beijing to delay the arrival of the vessel. However, that request is likely to fall on deaf ears. The fact remains that Sri Lanka doesn’t want to annoy India, but it also doesn’t have the willingness to say no to China on issues like docking a spy ship in the island country.

Sri Lanka must choose

For Sri Lanka, it may be time to understand that Indian humanitarian ships carrying relief material cannot dock on banks surrounded by Chinese spy vessels. Sri Lanka is literally trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

India understands its moral and historical obligation to reach out to its neighbours in South Asia if they are distressed. This is why India has been offering unconditional help to Colombo, while Beijing consciously avoided helping the island nation. However, it doesn’t mean that India’s security interests in the Indian Ocean Region should be disregarded.

From a pragmatic standpoint, Sri Lanka’s diplomatic establishment is aware about the kind of relationship that India and China share. It is also reasonable to believe that Colombo knows exactly why China wants to dock its spy ships in the island country. These are issues over which monkey-balancing tactics simply won’t work. Sooner or later, India’s patience could get exhausted and if its security concerns go unaddressed, the enthusiasm to provide aid and assistance could taper off.

For Sri Lanka, this is the moment of reckoning. It must choose between Indian humanitarian ships and Chinese spy vessels.

Akshay Narang is a columnist who writes about international affairs and developments in the defence sector. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:August 12, 2022, 09:05 IST
last updated:August 12, 2022, 09:05 IST