In an attempt to balance between India and China, Sri Lanka has imposed a one-year ban on all foreign research vessels
On the face of it, the recent Sri Lankan government's decision to ‘declare a pause’ on foreign research vessels for one year beginning 1 January 2024 is an attempt to buy peace with the large-hearted Indian neighbour, and also the United States (US), leader of the Western bloc, that is not as generous towards the island-nation, especially in matters human rights. In the immediate, it means that China’s third ‘research/spy vessel’ Xiang Yang Hong 3 is not welcome in the first week of the New Year, as sought by Beijing.
“The arrival of these ships creates serious diplomatic tensions, and it (2024) is an election year,” Foreign Minister Ali Sabry said, by way of explanation. “Such ship visits can be highly disruptive for the region and Sri Lanka, because of the pressure the government may come under...” he added. Sri Lanka is due for presidential elections in the New Year. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has indicated a desire to contest. He has also spoken about dissolving the Parliament and ordering fresh elections a year before it is due in the second half of 2025, though no decision has been taken yet.
“Such ship visits can be highly disruptive for the region and Sri Lanka, because of the pressure the government may come under...” he added.
With this decision, he has sought to balance off external pressures. Such pressures, if not neutralised in time, could impact the much-needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans and slow down the UNHRC processes on war-crime probes and other post-war human rights violations, coming up to the immediate present. In turn, they could become serious talking points in the polls.
Yet, in effect, Sri Lanka’s ‘moratorium’ only means that a directly-elected President with a newly-elected Parliament, both with a full and fresh mandate, could and would review and take decisions that they consider appropriate and beneficial to their country, as they see it, as it stands in circa 2025. New Delhi should be keeping its fingers crossed, to the possibility of a post-poll President ordering a review earlier and also for the moratorium’s withdrawal or suspension on a selective basis.
Colombo-based Daily Mirror quoted Foreign Minister Ali Sabry stating that the government wanted time for ‘some capacity-development so that we can participate in such research activities as equal partners’. It was seemingly a post facto acknowledgement of the nation’s research inadequacies even though the government had claimed that Sri Lankan scientists on board Shi Yan 6 were equal partners with their Chinese counterparts after Colombo had made contradictory statements on the matter.
The arrival of the vessel also went against President Wickremesinghe’s commitment to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their maiden interaction in New Delhi in July that Shi Yan 6 would not be allowed to dock in Sri Lanka.
The arrival of the vessel also went against President Wickremesinghe’s commitment to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at their maiden interaction in New Delhi in July that Shi Yan 6 would not be allowed to dock in Sri Lanka. However, after announcing the government had prepared a ‘standard operating procedure’ (SOP) for foreign military vessels and aircraft arriving in the country, Colombo granted permission for Shi Yan 6 to dock at Colombo Port and also carry out ‘joint research’ as originally intended.
The moratorium comes in the aftermath of India expressing reservations to both Colombo and Malé after China sought permission from not only Sri Lanka but also neighbouring Maldives, for berthing Xiang Yang Hong 3. Going by the events and developments of the past years and in both countries, the Indian concerns were not misplaced.
For instance, Shi Yan 6 was not the first Chinese research/survey ship, otherwise considered a ‘spy ship’, to visit Sri Lanka. Hopefully, it would be the last at least for a year more. A year earlier in 2022, Yuan Wang 5 had berthed at the Chinese-controlled Hambantota Port in the south, unlike Shi Yan 6, which docked at the capital Colombo, before the eyes of the capital’s diplomatic community and local strategic community.
Unlike its successor, Yuan Wang 5 docked in Sri Lanka supposedly for only refuelling and re-stocking. There was no talk then about any joint research and the like. Effectively, it meant that China was testing the waters for India’s reaction and Sri Lanka’s counter-narrative, and steadfastness as a dependable political partner, if not a strategic ally, in these parts.
The moratorium comes in the aftermath of India expressing reservations to both Colombo and Malé after China sought permission from not only Sri Lanka but also neighbouring Maldives, for berthing Xiang Yang Hong 3.
In the case of the new vessel, Xiang Yang Hong 3, China had sought permission from both Sri Lanka and neighbouring Maldives, to dock it in these waters from 5 January to the end of May, a long five-month haul. As the intention was to map the ocean in these parts, the long stay should be a cause for concern for the larger Indian neighbour.
It should be equally so for the US, whose Diego Garcia military base is situated 700 km away from the southernmost Addu Atoll, with its War vintage Gan Airport. The distance is less than half between Diego Garcia and China’s Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka (1500 km).
While the Sri Lankan position on the Chinese proposal is now known, there is no clarity about the Maldivian decision on the Chinese request. During his poll campaign and after assuming power in November, Maldives’ new President Mohamed Muizzu had repeatedly declared that under him the nation would not replace one set of foreign soldiers (India) with another (China), as ‘Maldives is too small to be entangled in geopolitical rivalry’ (of the India-China kind).
The change of government led to speculation that President Muizzu was pro-China and by extension, anti-India, or vice versa. Among other poll promises, he had vowed to remove Indian military pilots and technicians operating three India-gifted aerial platforms (two helicopters and one fixed-wing Dornier) used in emergency medical evacuations from distant islands and aerial reconnaissance to check drug trafficking. Post-election and post-inauguration, he took up the matter with Indian interlocutors, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their short meeting in Dubai later is a pointer.
The change of government led to speculation that President Muizzu was pro-China and by extension, anti-India, or vice versa.
New Delhi is also peeved at President Muizzu’s decision not to renew the agreement with India for undertaking a hydrographic survey of Maldivian waters, when due in the New Year. The survey became possible under its India-friendly predecessor Ibrahim Solih. It remains to be seen if, in its place, China would renew the earlier offer to set up an ‘ocean observation station’ in Maldives remains to be seen. After the agreement for the purpose was signed during Muizzu’s jailed mentor, President Abdulla Yameen’s second China visit in 2017, Beijing claimed that it ‘neither had any military application nor was it a submarine base’, as speculated by strategic analysts from the West and India. As may be recalled, under President Solih, the Chinese project did not make progress.
Significantly, this was the first time that China had set out to send a ‘research vessel’ of this kind to Maldives. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, New Delhi had to assume that the Chinese request was linked to the change of government in Maldives, where President Mohamed Muizzu has replaced India-friendly Ibrahim Solih.
From an Indian perspective, repeated visits by a succession of Chinese ‘research/spy’ ships in neighbourhood waters and ports, can be seen only as Beijing putting into practice elements of the forgotten ‘String of Pearls’ theory and also testing the waters for possible naval deployment. This may be the beginning of China going back to the bilateral trajectory after shedding the intermediary all-inclusive BRI project that has failed to produce the desired results on any front—political, economic, or strategic.
For New Delhi, Chinese efforts at befriending its Ocean neighbours—be it for political, economic or strategic matters—will remain a cause for eternal concern for a long time to come. This is what New Delhi is addressing by expressing its continuing concerns on the China front to its Ocean neighbours on a continual basis—and with due respect to their sovereignty and territorial integrity, and good neighbourly relations of past several decades and centuries.
N Sathiya Moorthy is a Chennai-based Policy Analyst and Political Commentator
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N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.Read More +