Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 16, 2023

The presence of Shi Yan-6 in Sri Lanka has become a cause of concern for other countries in the Indian Ocean

Chinese ships in Sri Lanka: An irritant for India

The presence of Chinese ships has become the main irritant in India’s Sri Lanka relations in recent times. China has also become a major determinant in New Delhi’s ties with the other Indian Ocean neighbour, Maldives. Although not to the same extent and context, Chinese presence in individual nations in other countries neighbouring India has also been a cause of constant concern for the latter. Sections in the Indian strategic community also feel uncomfortable about the recent Bhutan-Chin border talks and the cooperation agreement that was signed in October 2023. This is so despite Bhutan keeping India briefed, as seen by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s recent visit to New Delhi, where he held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. All these do not include Pakistan in the northwest and Afghanistan, with their own China links, old and new. 

The question is if India can de-link China from individual neighbours, would it leave New Delhi with more nuanced and less strained ties with each one of them and also collectively so? Such a course would place India as a more confident nation than it is at present—or, as it is being seen thus far in the neighbourhood and beyond. 

Predictions of India becoming the third-largest economy in the world in the coming years have their limitations in power projection. India is not much of a weapons manufacturer, to flex its muscles, unlike its fellow Quad partner, the United States (US). It is not expected to become one and compete with China, at least for some more time to come. With 355 warships, China, today, has the world’s largest navy, way above the US. 

What it lacks in hardware, India can make up with the immense stock of national pride and confidence, alongside better ties with individual neighbours. Individually and collectively, the goodwill for India in individual neighbours is growing. If India does not get provoked, then China will have no way of needling India in the latter’s neighbourhood.

In context, India can learn from its experience with the US, through the post-Cold War transition. Today, bilateral ties between these two nations have soared to new heights from where they were, for instance, during the ‘Bangladesh War’ (1971). There may be a lesson for India in this. New Delhi may have to treat bilateral relations with neighbours, independent of China. For instance, normalisation in India-US ties did not happen until the US de-hyphenated the nation’s India-Pakistan equations. Other factors helped or fell in place, but no one, up to the eighties, in either nation would have thought that their relations would become all-encompassing, mutually beneficial, and trustworthy as it is since. 

From an Indian perspective, post-9/11 experiences with the Islamabad-Rawalpindi duo gave greater insights and/or confidence and conviction for the US to conclude that India’s cross-border terrorism charges against Pakistan were true, after all. Today, the US, more than India, is at the forefront of anti-Pakistan accusations on the terror issue in bilateral engagement with Islamabad and also in international fora. Thanks to the US’ exposition of the subject, other Western nations that were ambivalent at best on Pakistan’s anti-India terror modules have become increasingly less so in the recent past. Even otherwise, they have been moving away from Pakistan with its multiple crises and closer to India.


Two in a row

The visit of Chinese ‘research vessel’, Shi Yan-6, to Sri Lanka and its joint maritime research work with Sri Lankan experts on board have raised more questions than answers. This is the second such Chinese visitation in just over a year. Only China, and Sri Lanka, say they are research vessels. In August 2022, Yuan Wang-5 was berthed at the southern-most Hambantota Port. It is unclear if Shi Yan-6 being docked at Colombo, before the eyes of the capital’s diplomatic community and media, and not at Hambantota, which has been in China’s possession for 99 long years under a lease, should deepen or lighten India’s security concerns.

To Sri Lanka, Shi Yan-6 could hand over data collected during the period of joint research, with date and time. Or, that is the expectation. Yet, the Sri Lankan claims to be given exclusive possession of those data, as if to the exclusion of China, have no meaning. None of the Sri Lankan experts on board the ship is known to be a data-gleaning specialist to know the difference. Nor can China, or any other in its place, be expected in the normal course to permit a ‘third-nation’ expert to access the equipment on board. Dual-use technology is the name of the game. What Yuan Wang-5 did in terms of satellite and missile-tracking, among other acts of spying, Shi Yan-6 is capable of doing in the maritime and naval domains. 

The Indian concerns stem from the kind of data that the Chinese vessels can access on the ocean currents and other parameters of the seas in these parts for the safe deployment of their warships and more so submarines in times of their choosing. Even if Colombo may not be immediately affected now, or even later, it should be alive to the possibilities of China using such data in any adversarial military situation vis-á-vis India and/or other nations in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood, including the US with its military base in Diego Garcia.

In particular, Sri Lanka should think ahead as to how possible/probable Chinese use of the data that Colombo had now helped it collect could impact the nation’s strategic security and consequent political stability—and more so, economic prosperity, which at the moment is still close to the nadir that it had hit in 2022. After Maldives’ cold-shouldering of the three-nation bi-annual maritime drills under President Abdulla Yameen (2013-18), Sri Lanka should think about how the present developments could impact the still-fledgling multi-nation Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) of immediate IOR nations, of which it is the permanent chair and India is a key member.


Direct benefits

The growing anxiety, especially in the neighbouring countries, is that Sri Lankan ports could become pit-stops for Chinese vessels to re-stock supplies and fuel. Any future Chinese threats emanating from neighbourhood waters, even if not landed territory, could turn out to be a security threat for those nations, and also jeopardise bilateral relations with India. 

Following concerns from India and the US over Shi Yan-6's visit, Sri Lanka announced that it had drafted a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for granting permission to foreign warships and war-planes to use its territorial space. Ahead of the Yuan Wang-5 docking at Hambantota, Sri Lanka claimed to have off while in Sri Lankan territory. 

On neither occasion did Sri Lanka ask itself as to the real and/or relative direct benefits that could accrue to the nation from the visit of Chinese ships. If it was the political accommodation of China for past and future promises on multiple fronts, then Colombo should weigh in on Indian concerns, say, even in equal/equitable terms, including economic assistance and commitments through the long term. 

During President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Delhi visit earlier this year, the two nations signed a host of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), aimed at improving Sri Lanka’s economic and energy security, both of which suffered very badly during the multiple crises of 2022. If nothing else, India should feel safe and secure as a nation, to follow up on them all, which was initiated as a part of New Delhi’s ever-expanding ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and attendant programmes.


‘No strings attached’

Ahead of the Yuan Wang-5 docking, supposedly for re-fuelling and re-stocking, China, however, called out its critics. Without naming India and the US, China claimed that it was ‘completely unjustified for certain countries to cite so-called 'security concerns' to pressure Sri Lanka’. This time around, Beijing has let Colombo do all the talking.


China has been active on the bilateral front these past weeks. Meeting with Wickremesinghe on the sidelines of the decennial event to mark the formal launch of China’s BRI in October, President Xi Jinping declared that ‘no political strings are attached’ to Beijing’s bilateral relations with Colombo.


In meetings with Wickremesinghe in Beijing, Chinese Vice-Prime Minister Ding Xuexiang committed his nation to ‘further develop Colombo Port City (CPC) and Hambantota Port’. In turn, China’s Finance Minister Chinese Finance Minister, Liu Kun, told the visitor that Beijing was ‘committed to enhance Sri Lanka’s credit-optimisation’. While both require further explanation, for now, there is positivity in Colombo that the successful negotiations with China for re-scheduling the existing debts at last have helped the nation to obtain the International Monetary Fund’s clearance to clear the second tranche of US$ 3-billion credit.

But from the Indian and larger regional perspective, it remains to be seen how Sri Lanka would react if and when Beijing pressurises it to sign Xi’s equally ambitious ‘Global Security Initiative’ (GSI). In Beijing, recently for the BRI decennial, Nepal’s centre-left Prime Minister Pushpa Kumar Dahal alias Prachanda said ‘no’ to joining the GSI even while accepting Chinese developmental funding and initiatives, including a ‘forward rail plan’.

India and the region would be better off if Sri Lanka, after the presidential polls next year, drew a similar distinction and put it convincingly. This is because throughout the recent past, from Hambantota to the two Chinese ship visits, from Colombo Port City to Colombo Port’s International Container Terminal (CTC), Sri Lanka is seen as saying much less than required to convince India which is concerned with its security and the security of the region as a whole. Alternatively, India should work towards de-hyphenating China from neighbourhood equations and relations.

N Sathiya Moorthy is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

Read More +