New Delhi: Differences have arisen between Colombo and Beijing regarding the timing of the visit of a Chinese vessel to Sri Lanka ostensibly for research work even as a key Sri Lankan partner in the project has pulled out of the deal.
While China wants the ship Shi Yan 6 to dock in Sri Lanka as earlier scheduled on October 25, Sri Lanka wants this deferred to next month citing an Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) meeting scheduled to be held in Colombo this month. According to a report in the Daily Mirror newspaper, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe is also expected to discuss this matter with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during his upcoming visit to Beijing.
The latest developments come amid India’s concerns about the frequent visits to Sri Lankan waters, a region New Delhi considers to be under its sphere of influence, by Chinese naval ships under the garb of research work. According to the report, Sri Lanka has also requested China to exclude the northern part of its territorial waters from the ship’s research activities given India’s concerns due to geographical proximity.
The US too has voiced concerns about the visit of the Shi Yan 6 to Sri Lanka. During a meeting with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly Session in New York last month, US Undersecretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland raised this matter.
Sri Lanka is under pressure from Japan too on this issue, according to reports. India, the US and Japan, along with Australia, are part of a Quad that is working for a free and open Indo-Pacific in the face of Chinese hegemony in the region that stretches from the east coast of Japan to the east coast of Africa.
Despite India’s continued protests to Sri Lanka for allowing Chinese naval ships into its waters, the country’s defence ministry in August granted permission to the Shi Yan 6 to enter the Indian Ocean island nation’s waters following a request by the foreign ministry and the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).
However, to clear the air, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Sabry said on September 26 that his country has not yet given permission to the Shi Yan 6 to enter its waters in October and that negotiations between Colombo and Beijing were going on.
“…As far as I know, we have not given permission (to Shi Yan 6) to come to Sri Lanka during October. Negotiations are going on. Indian security concerns, which are legitimate, are very, very important for us. We have always told (sic) that because we want to keep our region a zone of peace,” Ali Sabry was quoted as saying in New York.
The main reason why India is perturbed by the presence of Chinese ships in Sri Lanka in the garb of research work is that such ships have military purposes as well. According to the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, the Shi Yan 6 is a “scientific research vessel” with a 60-member crew, which carries out oceanography, marine geology and marine ecology tests. But experts believe that such ships have the capability to carry out seabed mapping which can help the Chinese Navy to deploy submarines in the region.
In 2022, India had strongly protested when a Chinese survey vessel called the Yuan Wang 5 was allowed to dock at the Hambantota port. Though the ship was described as a research and survey vessel, security analysts said that it was also packed with space and satellite tracking electronics that can monitor rocket and missile launches. The ship was given permission to dock by then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a day before he fled the country in the midst of an economic crisis.
Then again, in August this year, a Chinese ship claiming to be a research vessel docked at Colombo port ostensibly for replenishments. The Hao Yang 24 Hao actually turned out to be a Chinese warship. The 129-metre-long ship is manned by a crew of 138 and is commanded by Commander Jin Xin.
When asked about it at a media briefing, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said that the Indian government “carefully monitors any development having a bearing on India's security interests and takes all necessary measures to defend them”.
Coming back to the Shi Yan 6, in a related development, the University of Ruhana in Sri Lanka which was supposed to collaborate with the Chinese vessel in its research work has announced that it is pulling out of the project. The government-run university stated that it will stay away from the planned geophysical scientific research with the Chinese ship. The university had decided to drop the joint research with China as one of the lecturers who agreed to join the research had migrated overseas while another lecturer had “stepped away from the country’s university completely”, according to the Newsfirst news portal of Sri Lanka. The NARA had earlier said that the Shi Yan 6 will be reaching Sri Lanka as per an agreement reached with the University of Ruhuna.
During his visit to India in July this year, President Wickremesinghe had tried to assuage New Delhi’s apprehensions about the presence of Chinese naval ships in his island nation’s waters. Wickremesinghe said that his country has adopted a new standard operating procedure (SOP) to determine what kind of military and non-military ships and aircraft will be allowed to visit the country. The SOP was adopted following a request by India but its details are not available in the public domain yet.
Though Wickremesinghe claims that his country maintains an Asia-centric neutral foreign policy without getting involved in any major power rivalry, Colombo is compelled to maintain equally good relations with both New Delhi and Beijing due to external debt obligations and the economic crisis last year. But the fact of the matter is that Sri Lanka cannot afford to refuse China’s request for permission to allow its ships’ access to its waters because of Beijing’s huge investments in India’s southern neighbour.
Meanwhile, in what observers say is Beijing’s way of punishing Colombo for maintaining close relations with India and the West, China has stalled Sri Lanka’s access to desperately needed cash under a $3-billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). According to a report in Nikkei Asia, the IMF, which has insisted on “financing assurances” from bilateral lenders as a key pillar, gave Sri Lanka a failing grade in the first review of the bailout, denying it a second tranche of $330 million in aid.
The IMF has been insisting that Sri Lanka should get an assurance from its biggest bilateral lenders - China, Japan and India - that it will restructure its loans before possible IMF funding. Despite many requests from Colombo, Beijing is unwilling to provide it with “a concrete debt relief framework”, according to Nikkei Asia.
According to a report in the Daily FT, Colombo is likely to reach a debt reduction deal this month with India, Japan and France to be in time for the IMF and the World Bank’s meetings later this month in Morocco. China has not joined the group and has remained as an observer.
So, will China accede to Sri Lanka’s request to defer the Shi Yan 6’s visit? Will Beijing relent and help Colombo get over its debt obligations? All eyes will be on the discussions between Presidents Wickremesinghe and Xi during the former's visit to Beijing later this month for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) annual summit.