China-India conflict and economic crisis put Sri Lanka in trouble following visit by ‘spy’ ship

By PKBalachandran

Colombo, Aug 7 (Counterpoint): The Chinese Survey and Monitoring Vessel Docking Project Yuan Wang 5 at the port of Hambantota from August 11 to 17, sparked a low-intensity conflict between India and China, placing Sri Lanka in a stalemate.

Sri Lanka desperately needs financial assistance from India and China to overcome an unprecedented financial crisis. Therefore, any stalemate between the two giants will exacerbate the island nation’s bid to pull itself out of the economic quagmire.

After India verbally protested to Sri Lanka against the ship’s visit (suspecting that it might spy on the southern and eastern coasts of India from the port of Hambantota), Sri Lanka asked China to postpone the visit to allow consultations. By doing so, Sri Lanka was trying to buy time to resolve the issue in a way that would not alienate it from either New Delhi or Beijing.

But given India’s tough stance on the issue (for more than one reason), the powers-that-be in New Delhi are unlikely to accept a ‘no’ for an answer from Colombo. As for China, it is currently in an exceptionally belligerent mood, given the challenge it faces from the United States over Taiwan. And being Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, with the power to block the latter’s debt restructuring efforts, China could strangle the island nation if the latter does not allow the ship to dock under the influence of rival India.

In addition to the geopolitical dimension of the problem, Sri Lanka also faces a psychological problem: from the 1980s, its formal status as a sovereign state, legally free to make the decisions it wants, has been constantly eroded by the regional powers. and global issues, such as security, human rights and constitutional arrangements. The proposed visit to Yuan Wang 5 is just the latest challenge to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty in a long line of challenges.

However, India and China have their arguments to support their respective demands. To take the case of India first, New Delhi considers neighboring Sri Lanka to be part of its sphere of influence and its perimeter of defense. India also sees Lanka as a natural ally with deep historical and contemporary cultural and religious ties. New Delhi therefore demands a special relationship, which means for it to keep Sri Lanka, India’s rivals or any force hostile to it at bay.

Furthermore, India is striving diligently to place Sri Lanka under its political, economic and security umbrella through its “neighborhood first” policy and maritime security agreements. Within the framework of such a security agreement, Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives must cooperate in the creation. maintain and operate a mutual maritime domain awareness (MDA) system. Under the MDA programme, Sri Lanka should have informed India in advance of the visit of Yuan Wang 5. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was president of Sri Lanka when the ship received diplomatic clearance to dock. The requirement to notify India under the MDA program was ignored.

The problem was compounded by the failure of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s successor government to review it with the sensitivity of MDA and India in mind. New Delhi expected Colombo not to repeat the mistake made in 2014, when a Chinese nuclear submarine secretly docked at the port of Colombo, almost coinciding with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the city. . This docking was viewed in New Delhi as a hostile act and relations between New Delhi and Colombo deteriorated severely.

The case of India during the visit of Yuan Wang 5 is further supported by the fact that, unlike China or any other country for that matter, India has always been the “first responder” whenever Sri Lanka faced any problem, whether it act of a natural, economic or political disaster. New Delhi came to Colombo’s aid to curb a leftist uprising in 1971 and also during the leftist uprising of 1988-89. To end Tamil separatist militancy in 1987, he sent a peacekeeping force to implement the India-Sri Lanka agreement. And during the current economic crisis, India has helped with a US$3.8 billion line of credit and actually shipped vital supplies, a contribution that is matched by no other country.

By contrast, China’s contribution during the current crisis has been negligible. China has played hard to get, saying it has no haircut system on loan repayments. She offered another loan to repay some of her previous loans in Sri Lanka. He called on Sri Lanka to be financially prudent, avoid taking out loans and invite Chinese investment instead. He also insisted that Sri Lanka sign an FTA with him which had been pending since 2015 due to Lanka’s reservations.

Regarding the use of the port of Hambantota, China considers it a Chinese port insofar as it had leased it for 99 years in 2017. It considers that China should have legitimate access to it, in particular because that Yuan Wang 5 only comes for “restocking”. In addition, a Chinese military vessel could not be denied docking when military vessels of other countries, including the United States, had docked there. An American military ship had even conducted an exercise there.

Either way, Sri Lanka cannot disengage from China. With deep pockets, China is the largest bilateral creditor and investor in Sri Lanka with investments totaling over US$6.5 billion in the vital infrastructure sector. And its financial assistance cannot be matched by any country, including India, although the latter is eager to help. China also has influence within the IMF, from which Sri Lanka expects a bailout. A vexed China is unlikely to help Sri Lanka at the IMF.

Sri Lanka hopes China will cancel the Yuan Wang 5 visit in view of the very serious reservations expressed by India. If China does this, overcoming its bellicose approach, it will bring great relief to Sri Lanka.

However, as a precautionary measure, Sri Lanka has obviously moved closer to India. In his first official address to the Sri Lankan parliament as president, President Ranil Wickremesinghe praised India and did not even mention China. “I would like to make special mention of the assistance provided by India, our closest neighbour, in our economic revitalization efforts. The Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given us a breath of life. On behalf of my people and mine, I express my gratitude to Prime Minister Modi, the government and the people of India,” Wickremesinghe said.

Even in his speech at the Advocata Institute, the President talked about the bilateral economic ties with India in the energy structure and did not mention China at all.

And for its part, India, whether at prime minister or foreign minister level, has described itself as a “trustworthy and reliable” friend of Sri Lanka, based on its “age-old civilizational ties”. .

Therefore, it seems that, at least at present, India is on a better wicket than China in Sri Lanka. However, much will depend on Beijing’s response to Colombo’s request for a postponement of Yuan Wang 5′s visit to Hambantota. This could save or damage Sri Lanka’s ties with India and China.


Christine E. Phillips