Chinese ship at Sri Lankan port: More to it than meets the eye

By N. Sathiya Moorthy 

Beijing’s ‘senseless’ criticism of reported Indian reservations to dual-purpose Chinese naval ship Yuan Wang 5 docking at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port notwithstanding, there is a lot more to the incident than meets the eye. The concerns are as much economic as they are strategic, considering that the US-led West is as nervous about China as they are about Russia in the aftermath of the ongoing Ukraine War.

To begin with, as the host member of the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC), Sri Lanka has to be more circumspect, than in the past, over continuing commitments to cooperative maritime security in the neighbourhood Indian Ocean waters, as it now involves the concerns of all member nations and not just the larger Indian neighbour. This is so even if the CSC has no mandate as yet over traditional security issues. However, the commitment to cyber security cooperation, reaffirmed at the July meeting in Kochi, should apply to Yuan Wang 5.

At Kochi, on July 8, 2022, India too reiterated that the CSC ‘remains central’ to regional cooperation on cyber security, trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, and maritime safety and security. In a broad sense, the inclusion of ‘maritime safety and security’ should include the current Indian concerns and future expectations/demands from such other members.

The CSC is a calibrated take-off from the India-Maldives bi-annual to which Sri Lanka was included in 2012, after the conclusion of the decades-old LTTE war. Anti-terror cooperation is amongst the mandates of the CSC, as rechristened in 2020 and expanded, with Mauritius as the fourth member now, and Bangladesh and Seychelles as ‘observers’.

Though Dhaka or any other CSC member has not raised India-like concerns over Yuan Wang 5, Bangladesh has denied a port-of-call facility to the China-built Pakistani frigate, PNS Taimur, on its maiden trip from Shanghai to a home base. Dhaka has cited the death anniversary of Prime Minister Hasina’s father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who was massacred by Pakistani stooges on  August 15, 1975, and how it could upset the local population if the Pakistani naval vessel was to dock around the time.

Moreover, legitimate Indian concerns might have been weighed by the Bangladesh authorities ahead of Sheikh Hasina’s New Delhi visit in September. Against this, Sri Lanka has granted permission for PNS Taimur to dock at Colombo Port. This too has caused the Indian strategic community to raise their eyes.

Responsibility to Protect

Historically and otherwise, India-Sri Lanka strategic relations have been predicated by mutual suspicions, though not outright animosity. Over and above the mainline Sinhala depiction of Tamil Nadu’s Chola rulers as plunderers, who ransacked their palaces and Buddhist viharas, allegedly over a thousand years ago, Sri Lanka fears that post the Bangladesh War, India would seek to carve out a ‘separate Tamil homeland’. This found skewed justification in New Delhi’s funding, training, and arming militant Tamil youth groups in the aftermath of the anti-Tamil ‘Pogrom-83’ in which thousands of Tamils were killed and tens of thousands risked their lives to seek refuge in Tamil Nadu.

The Indian experience with the creation of Bangladesh more than a decade earlier showed that accommodating ethnic refugees had demographic consequences nearer to home. Equipping them, instead, to defend themselves against an unkind State back home was tantamount to India invoking the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) doctrine, which the UN waited to adopt in 2005, after atrocities in the Balkans and Rwanda, a decade earlier.

The clouded Sri Lankan memory would be cleared if they considered the induction of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF), at the insistence of President J. R. Jayewardene, as provided for under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987, to maintain peace in the Tamil areas. However, the IPKF ended up fighting the LTTE instead, clearly indicating the changed Indian priority on the ground. In a way, the IPKF was defending Sri Lanka, fighting its war against the LTTE. In this case, the IPKF and India received brickbats from both the Sinhalas (for induction) and the Tamils (for alleged excesses).

Who took the decision?

Against this backdrop, Sri Lanka’s decision to permit China’s Yuan Wang 5 to dock at Hambantota, purportedly for replenishment raises questions. India wants Sri Lanka to find out the ‘real purpose’ of the ship’s visit, implying that it was open to evidence-based arguments. China, without naming India, has reacted harshly.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that Beijing had taken note of the reports and asserted that “the cooperation between China and Sri Lanka is independently chosen by the two countries and meets common interests. It does not target any third party”. Without naming India, he said, it was “senseless to pressure Sri Lanka” by citing the issue of security concerns. “Sri Lanka is a sovereign state. It can develop relations with other countries in the light of its own development interests,” he said. “The cooperation between China and Sri Lanka is independently chosen by the two countries and meets common interests,” he said further.

There is no denying the ‘love triangle’ involving India and China, in which Sri Lanka has developed a knack for getting caught in recent decades. Earlier, it used to be the India-Pakistan adversity and acrimony that Colombo found difficult to handle. Yet, in this case, there may be external justification for the Wickremesinghe government to ask China to ‘put off’ the ship visit, whether expressed or otherwise. According to media reports, Sri Lanka gave the permission on July 12, 2022, when there was a vacuum in the presidency though technically Gotabaya Rajapaksa continued in that position after having fled the nation on July 9, but had not quit as yet.

The question thus arises as to who took the decision for Sri Lanka? Was then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in the know? After all, he had commenced taking certain decisions without Cabinet authorization, especially on the law and order front, after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled.

Strategic cooperation

Sri Lankans often believe that New Delhi was over-reacting in such situations involving a third nation that is adversarial to India. Many in the Sri Lankan strategic community also feel that India could take on China militarily — as much in the Indian Ocean waters at present as across their shared land borders. Indian security veterans endorse the view without batting an eye-lid — and they should know.

Yet, Sri Lanka’s strategic thinkers also do not want any third nation, whether real or strategic, fighting around their waters. Hence, they support instruments such as CSC that aim at giving neighbourhood Indian Ocean nations a sense of security from ‘extra-territorial’ powers. This may puncture their own argument about perceived Indian ‘over-reaction’ viz. Beijing, which India had first expressed years earlier when two Chinese submarines called at the Colombo Port in quick succession in 2014. However, Wickremesinghe, then prime minister is also credited with denying permission for a third Chinese submarine from visiting Sri Lanka in 2017. At the time, the denial did not seem to affect Sri Lanka’s relations with China.

In the CSC context, such commitments of mutual security and respecting mutual security concerns is a password for credibility and hence for the longevity and strengthening of the arrangement, which is still taking toddler steps. Though not mentioned in specific terms at present, the CSC may owe its origins to Sri Lanka’s suggestion for a bilateral defence cooperation agreement with India. The underlying spirit would have to go on to find multiple expressions in the drafting and implementation of the CSC now. Moreover, an upgraded defence cooperation agreement would have to provide ‘respect for mutual concerns’, and not unilateral concerns of select member nations.

This could then place an equal, or at least an equitable burden on India. There may be a collective CSC acknowledgement, even when expanded, that India, despite its size is placed in a unique and unenviable position of having to deal with two historic adversaries along its land borders. These adversaries also have maritime capabilities, and one of them has greater maritime/naval ambitions matching the current and future capabilities of the US, the sole superpower.

If India has concerns about China, what if Sri Lanka, for instance, has problems with the US, whose military is present in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood at Diego Garcia, for decades now? Under certain circumstances, Colombo too may want New Delhi to keep Sri Lanka, and maybe the CSC, in the loop on India’s defence and military cooperation agreements with a third nation.

Otherwise, too, Yuan Wang 5, reportedly with a long reach for satellite tracking, may not require to dock at Hambantota or anywhere nearby for studying India’s strategic assets. However, if it were Beijing’s way of asserting access for Chinese naval vessels to Hambantota Port and more than one Chinese naval vessel could berth at the same time or at least around the same time, that would be a different story altogether. Such possibilities of China wanting to remind Sri Lanka and the rest of the world that it has a lease-hold over Hambantota and thus should have free access for its naval vessels may also have triggered the Indian concerns, long before they became more frequent, and in turn graver, too.

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a Chennai-based policy analyst & commentator. He can be contacted on  sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com. This article was originally featured orfonline.org

 

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