Author: Aja Melville
October 12 2023
Sri Lanka finds itself in a tricky position as it seeks to navigate an independent path between neighboring India and China, which has been expanding its reach into the Indian Ocean region. The latest dilemma is a planned visit to Colombo by a Chinese research vessel in cooperation with the Sri Lankan National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA). The Shi Yan 6 was slated to visit from Oct. 25 through November under an agreement with the University of Ruhuna in southern Sri Lanka, but the school recently announced that it had withdrawn from the deal. Colombo requested that China defer the visit. Beijing has insisted on adhering to the original schedule.
India has taken note of an increase in Chinese surveying missions across the Indian Ocean region, ostensibly for research purposes. Indian analysts say that the data collected are intended to support Chinese submarine operations in the shallow waters of the Malacca Strait and eastern Indian Ocean.
This is not the first time tensions have risen due to a visit by a Chinese maritime vessel to Sri Lanka. Last year, the Yuan Wang 5 space-tracking ship docked at Hambantota Port on Sri Lanka’s southern coast for a week beginning on Aug. 16. Similar to this latest issue, the Sri Lankan government asked China to postpone the ship’s visit due to Indian concerns, but later cleared its stay on the conditions that it would leave its Automatic Identification System (AIS) on within Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and that no scientific research would be conducted in its waters. New Delhi was concerned that the long-range radars on the Yuan Wang 5 would allow it to monitor sensitive facilities in southern India. Indian navy officials acknowledge that there is little that could be done unless the Chinese vessels engaged in overtly hostile activities.
Sri Lanka, located some 30 miles (50 km) off the coast of India, does not wish to be dominated by its larger neighbor, nor growing regional power, China. India has provided significant economic support since Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. Seeking to chart its own course, Colombo has in the last two decades turned to China for additional assistance, including through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was launched in 2013. The construction of Hambantota Port, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and the Colombo Port City are considered flagship BRI projects. These have not come without cost. China gained control of the Hambantota Port in 2017, securing a 99-year lease after Sri Lanka was unable to keep up with loan payments.
The U.S. also expressed concern about the docking of Chinese government vessels in Sri Lanka. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has rejected the description of the Chinese vessels as spy ships, emphasizing they are research vessels that have been visiting for the last decade as part of an agreement between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and NARA. Wickremesinghe also took the opportunity to criticize the Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) agreement intended to develop new nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian and British navies, calling it a military alliance against China. Wickremesinghe's statements appear to indicate growing Chinese influence within Sri Lanka's leadership.
Long under India’s shadow, Sri Lanka seeks to chart its own course between the Asian rivals and maximize its diplomatic and economic opportunities. This requires careful diplomacy while safeguarding national interests and sovereignty. Colombo has already fallen short, forced to lease the Chinese-built Hambantota Port back to China. Tensions over visits by Chinese research vessels are a microcosm of the broader diplomatic complexities that Sri Lanka must manage as it seeks to position itself within the evolving regional political landscape.
“India-China Tango Continues in Sri Lanka,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Diplomat (Washington, D.C.), Oct. 6, 2023; “Presence of Chinese 'research' ship Shi Yan 6 in Colombo is problematic for India. Here's why,” Sneha Swaminathan, WION News, Oct. 1, 2023.
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