(TibetanReview.net, Aug08’22) – Sri Lanka is caught in a contest between India and China over a Jul 12 permission it had given to a Chinese spy ship to dock at its southern deep-sea port of Hambantota, which is considered strategically important for its location. The port has been developed largely with Chinese loans and is now held under a 99-year lease by a Chinese company in the aftermath of Colombo’s inability to repay that loan.
Following India’s protest, Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry, in a note to the Chinese embassy dated Aug 5, said “the ministry wishes to request that the arrival of the vessel Yuan Wang 5 in Hambantota to be deferred until further consultations are made on the matter.”
China’s Ambassador Qi Zhenhong reacted by seeking an urgent meeting, which he got with President Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was a closed-door meeting.
The previous Sri Lanka government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa had approved the Chinese vessel’s docking on Jul 12, just hours before he fled the country for Maldives in the face of a popular uprising over his mismanagement of the country’s economy, which included taking huge loans from China.
The Chinese vessel was expected to dock at the Sri Lankan port for “refuelling and replenishment” from Aug 11 to 17and to conduct satellite control and research tracking in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean region through August and September.
However, India informed Sri Lanka that the docking of the high-tech Chinese research vessel could pose a threat to its national security.
The AFP Aug 7 cited media reports as saying Sri Lanka had received strong messages of protests from India as the ship was said to have the capability to track satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
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“The government carefully monitors any development having a bearing on India’s security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them,” India’s External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi was quoted as having said in New Delhi in July.
New Delhi is said to be concerned about the possibility of the ship’s tracking systems attempting to snoop on Indian installations while being on its way to the Sri Lankan port.
In the past too, India has taken a stern view of Chinese military vessels in the Indian Ocean and has protested such visits with Sri Lanka.
Ties between the two countries had come under strain after Colombo gave permission to a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to dock in one of its ports in 2014.
India’s concerns have been focused especially on Hambantota port. In 2017, Colombo leased the southern port to a Chinese company for 99 years, after it was unable to keep its loan repayment commitments, fanning fears over the potential use of the port for military purposes, noted the timesofindia.com Aug 7.
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China is the main creditor of Sri Lanka with investment in infrastructure. Debt restructuring of Chinese loans would be key to the island’s success in the ongoing talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, noted the AFP report.
India on the other hand has been Sri Lanka’s lifeline in the ongoing economic crisis.
India has been at the forefront of extending economic assistance of nearly $4 billion to Sri Lanka during the year as the island nation is grappling with the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
As the new Sri Lankan president looks at pulling the country out of its economic crisis, India has said that it will continue to assist the island nation and support its people in their quest for stability and prosperity.
The AFP report cited Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena as saying last week that his country was looking forward to settle the issue of the vessel’s visit with an “approach of friendship”.