India wants Sri Lanka to find out the ‘real purpose’ of the ship’s visit, implying that it was open to evidence-based arguments.
At Kochi, on 8 July 2022, India too reiterated that the CSC ‘remains central’ to regional cooperation on cyber security, trafficking, organised 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 anti-terror LTTE war in the island nation. 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 15 August 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.
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 anti-terror LTTE war in the island nation.
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 Jayawardene, 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).
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’.
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 12 July 2022, when there was a vacuum in the presidency though technically Gotabaya Rajapaksa continued in that position after having fled the nation on 9 July 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 authorisation, especially on the law and order front, after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled.
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.
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.
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.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.Read More +