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A Chinese Ship at Hambantota: A reality check for India-Sri Lanka relations

Chinese military survey ship Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota in Sri Lanka. For Beijing, the investment in Hambantota makes sense only if it plays a role in supporting China’s increased footprint in the Indian Ocean. Photo: ReutersPremium
Chinese military survey ship Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota in Sri Lanka. For Beijing, the investment in Hambantota makes sense only if it plays a role in supporting China’s increased footprint in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Reuters

  • The question for New Delhi is why its prompt help for Sri Lanka in its hour of need seems not to evoke consideration enough from significant sections in Colombo

The Chinese surveillance ship Yuan Wang 5 has finally berthed at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port after waiting at sea for a few days owing apparently to Indian pressure on Sri Lanka to prevent the visit, also referred to as ‘the threats of big powers’. New Delhi would certainly have explained to Colombo how allowing the ship to berth at a Sri Lankan port while entirely acceptable under international law was, nevertheless, a hostile act by the Chinese given the context of the ongoing tensions between the Indian and Chinese armies along the LAC at another end of the Indian peninsula.

Classified by the Sri Lankans as a ‘scientific research vessel’, the Yuan Wang belongs to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force and does not need to actually berth at a port in order to carry out its surveillance activities. If replenishment and refueling were the objectives, it could have done so at Karachi in Pakistan. Or even at Colombo. Hambantota, however, has special significance given that is part of a 99-year lease to a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

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For Beijing, the investment in Hambantota makes sense only if it plays a role in supporting China’s increased footprint in the Indian Ocean. With its own regional development and security initiatives in play, China will seek to undermine those institutions in India’s neighbourhood where it is either not a member such as, the Colombo Security Conclave, or those where it does not have a leadership role such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. A security engagement with Sri Lanka and other willing maritime states will be a crucial part of this strategy.

Given that China first sought and obtained clearance for the visit in early July as Sri Lanka was in the throes of political turmoil, it should be clear also that Beijing sought to exploit the instability to its own ends–the Sri Lankan government at the time must have hoped for more Chinese financial largesse. However, the Chinese have so far not met these expectations and are unlikely to do so either. They would have been pretty certain that that Colombo would accord final clearance for the Yuan Wang given that Sri Lanka remains dependent on China as one of its principal creditors agreeing to a planned International Monetary Fund debt restructuring package.

At the same time, there is also clearly an element of support for China within the Sri Lankan political establishment and government institutions. Several Sri Lankan members of parliament, for instance, joined Chinese officials at a ceremonial welcome for the Yuan Wang on 16 August. Meanwhile, claims that permission for the vessel to dock at Hambantota in July was given by the Sri Lankan foreign ministry without seeking the views or clearance of their defence ministry are somewhat hard to believe given that a former Sri Lankan Navy chief, Admiral Jayanth Colombage was the foreign secretary under the Gotobaya Rajapaksa administration. Tagging the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka in a Twitter post, another former senior naval officer and the minister of public security in the previous government, has just declared that he was in favour of the Chinese request.

The question then for New Delhi really is of why its prompt help for Sri Lanka in its hour of need seems not to evoke consideration enough from significant sections in Colombo. This in fact brings out clearly that economic crisis or political upheaval, Sri Lanka’s elites currently see their nation’s national security interests as being very different from those of New Delhi. As long as that remains the case, Colombo will play the China card and Chinese ships will continue to dock at Sri Lankan ports.

The problem–and it is one that successive Indian governments have suffered from–is that New Delhi desires to exercise a sphere of influence using arguments of size, geographical proximity, civilizational ties, ethnic linkages and the like but has been unable to simultaneously build a matrix of shared and sustainable interests with any of its neighbours more suited to the modern international economy and contemporary geopolitics.

India wishes to enjoy the soft power glow of being seen as a generous friend in Sri Lanka’s time of need while also seeking to call in the favour when required. That leaves very little for India’s neighbours to differentiate between New Delhi and Beijing.

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