[Editorial] Chinese Vessel at Hambantota Port

What is the story so far?

  • Recently, Sri Lanka approved the docking of Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese vessel, at its southern Hambantota Port.
  • This is the 2nd such approval from the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, following its first green flag to the visit in July. Colombo-based BRISL (BRI Sri Lanka), that studies the ambitious Chinese project, was the 1st to draw attention to this impending visit.
  • In the in-between period, India and the USA have raised concerns over the visit with Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
  • While Sri Lanka initially tried to stall the visit, it eventually gave in and relented. The vessel is now docked at Hambantota.
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What is Yuan Wang 5?

  • According to the Sri Lankan government, Yuan Wang 5 is a scientific research ship.
  • Through August and September, the vessel is expected to conduct ‘satellite control operations and research tracking’ in the Indian Ocean’s northwestern part.

How are the countries reacting?

India:

  • India has been expressing its concern over the visit from the start. The External Affairs Ministry had already commented on this issue twice.
  • According to the official statements, India had been carefully monitoring the situation as these developments have a bearing on the country’s security and economic interests.
  • India also rejected the China’s claims of India pressuring Sri Lanka on this issue.
  • India took this issue to various levels of Sri Lankan administration- President Wickremesinghe and also External Affairs Minister Ali Sabry (at the ASEAN Summit, Cambodia).

China:

  • When Sri Lanka requested that China defer the visit and called for consultations, China reacted strongly.
  • The Chinese Foreign Minister made the following points:
    • Sri Lanka is a transport hub in the IOR. Research vessels from many countries, including China, have been making port calls there for replenishment.
    • China is not violating any international law in making this visit.
    • It fully respects the jurisdiction of the coastal countries over research activities in their territorial waters.
    • Sri Lanka is a sovereign country with the right to develop ties with other nations according to its developmental interests.
    • For it to have normal cooperation is an independent choice made the 2 parties and it doesn’t target any 3rd party.

Sri Lanka

  • This comes at a time when the Sri Lankan government is battling a devastating economic crisis and is working on debt restructuring, ahead of its IMF package.
  • The situation put Colombo between India and the USA on one hand, and on the other hand, China.
  • It is now in a situation where it desperately needs support from all the 3 nations.
  • Also, Sri Lanka, like India and the USA, backs the ‘One China Policy’. This was reiterated at the ASEAN Summit.
  • Sri Lankan media reported that the administration gave the go ahead as it wasn’t satisfied with the reasons given, by Indian and US envoys, as being sufficient to refuse entry to the vessel.

Why is the recent decision significant?

  • Notably, Yuan Wang class vessels are not only used for tracking and supporting satellites, but also for deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles by the Strategic Support Force of PLA.
  • The Sri Lankan government’s recent decision is disappointing for 2 reasons:
    • A Chinese vessel with such strategic capabilities is sailing this close to Indian waters for the 1st time.
    • It is an indication of Colombo’s continuing to ignore Indian security concerns.
  • The incident reflects on the influence of Chinese financial and strategic muscle over the island state’s government.
  • Beijing has significant leverage over Colombo because of its financial clout- a crucial deciding factor in the recent decision, especially given the Sri Lankan financial crisis.
    • China is still reluctant to taking a haircut on its loans.
    • It has invested heavily in Sri Lankan strategic infrastructure projects.

What is the way ahead?

  • Though the recent Sri Lankan decision is disappointing, it would be a mistake to view it as a serious setback for India-Sri Lanka Ties.
  • It doesn’t warrant a review of Indian assistance to its southern neighbour in its time of need.
  • India’s assistance to Sri Lanka has increased during this crisis. It is now the top lender ($376.9 million) in the 1st 4 months of 2022. However, New Delhi cannot match Beijing when it comes to economic clout.
  • What India can do is band with like-minded countries to get Colombo to reorient its foreign and economic policy in its favour. Many of these countries are already major creditors of Sri Lanka.
  • For instance, the QUAD countries could come together for such a partnership. Japan is a major lender to Sri Lanka. Also, Sri Lanka’s efforts to get an IMF loan will bring it in contact with USA.
  • Weaning the crisis-ridden island nation away from China’s clutches is in the best interest of those countries that prioritize a rules-based order in the Indian Ocean. This requires concerted efforts.

Conclusion:

The recent Sri Lankan clearance for docking of Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota doesn’t signify the end of diplomatic jockeying by India in the island nation. It only signals the start of a new chapter.

Practice Question for Mains:

Examine the significance of Sri Lanka allowing Yuan Wang 5 to dock at Hambantota despite concerns raised by India and USA. What is the way ahead for India-Sri Lanka ties? (250 words)

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