The signals Sri Lanka is sending to India, one of its benefactors at a time of acute economic crisis, are confusing to the point of bewilderment. Having allowed Pakistan’s built-in-China naval ship Taimur to dock in Colombo last week, it permitted the Chinese spy ship Yuan Wang 5 to berth in Hambantota from Tuesday for “replenishment”. In between the visit of these two military vessels, India went ahead with the handing over of a Dornier reconnaissance aircraft as a gift to Sri Lanka.
The current President Ranil Wickremasinghe, a political survivor by definition in a long career, is heading, by default, a government that is in deep distress over its finances. It is a matter of conjecture whether such helplessness, to the extent of bankruptcy, precluded him from sticking to a stand he had first taken in asking the Chinese to defer the visit of the ship.
The Yuan Wang 5, with a crew of 400 and its deck bristling with huge antennae, lasers and radar is capable of monitoring satellites and missiles and can even help in the launching of the latter. Its berthing in Sri Lanka’s southern port, which China virtually owns on a 99-year lease, by itself cannot be a major security threat as the ship was as capable of spying on India when in the waters and sailing to its first port of call after it left China on the day that Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the island in July.
For India, the showdown is about much more than a single naval vessel docking in its vicinity. It is China’s assertiveness in its promotion of infra projects in its Belt & Road initiative on land and sea that is worrisome as it fits the pattern of behaviour befitting the aggressive outlook of an authoritarian ruler. Strategically, China’s “string of pearls” connects Gwaddar in Pakistan through Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, the Kyaukphyu port on Myanmar’s Andaman coast, a naval base in Cambodia, and through Hong Kong to Shanghai. Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka is a logistically crucial jewel in this “string of pearls”.
China’s loud reaction to assumed pressure from India on Sri Lanka to get the visit of Yuan Wang 5 deferred to a less contentious time than the present when tensions are already boiling over Taiwan should be seen in India as needlessly provocative. China’s moves on Taiwan as well as its forcefulness in the Indo-Pacific may be owing to its internal economic problems caused by its strict zero Covid approach, towards which it also lowered interest rates recently. But the flexing of its military muscle in the Indian Ocean so close to home is more of a long-term concern for India.
Sri Lanka’s role in a strategic China-Pakistan-Lanka axis while seeking humanitarian aid from India and getting lines of credit close to $4 billion to buy food, medicines and fuel leads to suspicion over whether it is playing clever games. Ranil’s role in this does little to assuage concerns in his own people over whether he is a proxy for the Rajapaksa brothers. India’s actions in dealing with Sri Lanka despite the provocations in its dealing with China and Pakistan have been even handed. It is moot whether they will remain so in the face of a naval vessel visiting the island after eight years.