India is reported to have ‘raised concerns at the highest levels’ over Sri Lanka’s decision to allow the Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang 5 to dock at the Hambantota Port. Yuan Wang 5 is said to be a ship engaged in marine scientific research, but benign though that sounds, it is also one of China’s latest generation space-tracking vessels, capable of monitoring satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Intelligence for the military, then, and as such certainly part of China’s defence hardware complement. It is legitimate for India to be concerned.
However, even if one were to call it a warship, it’s not the first Chinese vessel of its kind to dock in a Sri Lankan port. In December 2010 the Chinese missile destroyer, Lanzhou, was locked at the Colombo Port for five days. On that occasion also, India expressed concerns. In 2017, a hydrographic survey ship belonging to the Chinese Navy, Gi Jiguang (Hull 83) was in Colombo for a four-day goodwill visit. This too may have upset India. Another Chinese Naval vessel, Qian Weichang, also dedicated to hydrographic surveys, spent a few days in the Port a year later.
In November 2014, a Chinese submarine (Changzheng-2) and a warship (Chang Xing Dao) docked at the Colombo Port, seven weeks after another Chinese submarine, described as a long-range deployment patrol, had also called at the same port ahead of a visit to South Asia by Chinese President Xi Jinping. India probably raised concerns on that occasion too. However, the then Navy Spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya dismissed all ‘concerns’ thus: ‘This is nothing unusual. Since 2010, 230 warships have called at Colombo port from various countries on goodwill visits and for refuelling and crew refreshment.’
Yes, it’s not just China that’s leaving footprints in Sri Lankan waters and ports. This is routine stuff for the US Navy, for example. In October 2017, no less than six ships of the USA’s Carrier Strike Group (the USS Nimitz, the cruiser USS Princeton, and destroyers USS Howard, USS Shoup, USS Pinckney, and USS Kidd) docked in Sri Lanka. In December 2018, USS Rushmore of the US Navy arrived and in the following year we had USS Spruance and USNS Millinocket arriving at the Hambantota Port to take part in annual naval exercises. A few months ago, i.e. in March 2022, theUSS Fitzgerald, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer of the United States Navy, docked at the Trincomalee Port. We don’t know if India was aware or was concerned and if concerned showed this much anxiety.
Still, there’s nothing wrong in India being concerned. China, after all, isn’t India’s best friend. The US is certainly a better buddy, although relations have somewhat frayed after India didn’t bow down to pressure from Washington to side with NATO over the Ukraine situation following the Russian invasion. Perhaps in time to come, as the centre of global political and economic gravity shifts to Asia, India would find an objecting tongue if US destroyers, submarines and whatnot docked in any of Sri Lanka’s ports. For now, nothing. For now, China is India’s pet bugbear. Well, the pet bugbear of the USA too or rather a close second to Russia — US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan is an in-your-face giving of the finger to Beijing, nothing less. That’s another story for another day.
For now, it’s all about India and China as far as Sri Lanka is concerned — the shameless politicking of US Ambassador Julie Chung, a Ms Busybody if ever there was one, notwithstanding.
What do we make of it all, though? Well, Sri Lanka, today, is not in the happiest of places, politically or economically. Sri Lankan leaders have appealed to the world for assistance. India and China, in particular, have pledged support. That’s the problem. Sri Lanka, given the current policy regime (which is one that for decades has pooh-poohed the country’s resources and in particular the strength of the people), needs India as well as China. Sri Lanka cannot afford to rub either country the wrong way.
Now, if one were to be clinical about it and assume that a) the world is flat, b) all countries have equal say and sway, c) friendship rhetoric is not frill that covers self-interest and insidious design, and d) the powerful, although eminently able, aren’t willing to twist arms, the we can just brush off concerns as being irrelevant, irresponsible and quite out of order. We could go with ‘Sri Lanka is a sovereign country, we are friends to one and all blah, blah and many more blahs,’ but that’s not the happy world we live in.
So we need to be cute. Or rather, the government needs to have diplomatic finesse. Simply, it’s not a ‘China or India’ kind of proposition. It’s imperative that relevant authorities are open, frank and transparent with all parties. There will be sabre-rattling. There will be assurances. India knows that a Chinese warship or whatever vessel it may be docking in Sri Lanka is hardly a defensible reason to invade the island. India can of course withdraw support to Sri Lanka as it navigates an unprecedented economic crisis. Sri Lanka cannot say ‘that’s not fair.’
Of course that would fly in the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ foreign policy. The frills would come off and the truth would emerge: ‘India first and foremost, neighbourhood first only in a predatory sense.’ Not that it would bother India. Thugs aren’t really worried about being perceived as such when they have a free hand.
India is worried about the Chinese footprint in the island, especially the Hambantota Port which has been leased to China for 99 years (in a dodgy, ill-advised and carelessly worded document) for ‘commercial activity.’ Well, Sri Lanka should worry about the Chinese footprint too, one could argue. On the other hand, we’ve known that the Indian footprint was made among other ways by the jackboot of the Indian army. We know that Rajiv Gandhi, when the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed, bragged that it was the beginning of the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka. We know that top military persons considered it a victory that Sri Lanka had agreed to name Trincomalee as the capital of the merged Northern and Eastern Province.
And we know other things about China. China’s friendship is long and staunch on many counts, going back to the Rubber-Rice Pact and even before that. China did not fund, arm and train terrorists, create a problem and offer to sort it out and fail miserably. China did not undertake to disarm terrorists and fail to do so or despite not keeping to its side of the bargain insist that Sri Lanka implement to the last letter a constitutional amendment thrust down Sri Lanka’s throat at gun-point, almost. China has consistently and solidly defended Sri Lanka at the UN, especially the UNHRC and the UN Security Council. India, on the other hand, never stood up for her neighbour, choosing at best to abstain during key votes, sponsored by the USA or her allies. China has been a veritable guarantor of Sri Lanka’s security; India has actively subverted Sri Lanka’s security.
Ideally, geopolitics would evolve into an Asian Compact (as opposed to the QUAD) where India and China stand together against the world’s biggest bully, the US-led bloc which includes NATO members. Ideally, those who talk of friendship would not impose conditions on support. Ideally, Sri Lanka would excavate herself from the current predicament by placing greater faith on her resources and people, living within means, setting up development banks, banking on cooperatives and cooperation, and thereby fixing the balance of payment crisis, weaning herself from dollar dependency, and stumping the import mafia that has brought Sri Lanka to where it is now.
We do not live in such a world. Yet. And so, it’s time for the diplomats. Time for diplospeak. However, at no point should even those who have to dialogue harbour illusions about what’s what and who is who. Goes for India, China and anyone else, including Sri Lankans who in collusion with any such powers or on their own steam sow the seeds of misery on the citizenry.
[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]