The docking of the Chinese military vessel in Sri Lanka has touched off a fresh war of words between New Delhi and Beijing — this time over Colombo.
A day after the Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka, in a thinly veiled reference to India, alleged “thorough interference” into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and invoked what he called the history of aggression by “the northern neighbour”, New Delhi hit back sharply Saturday.
It said that the Chinese envoy’s “violation of basic diplomatic etiquette may be a personal trait” or “reflecting a larger national attitude” and his view of Sri Lanka’s “northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves”.
This strongly worded statement by India was a response to a signed article by Qi Zhenhong, China’s envoy in Colombo.
The article, published on the Chinese embassy’s website and local news website Sri Lanka Guardian, had a telling title: “From One-China Principle to ‘Yuan Wang 5’:Let’s Join Hands and Resolutely Safeguard Our Sovereignty, Independence and Territorial Integrity.”
This spat comes days after Sri Lanka’s U-turn to allow Yuan Wang 5, the Chinese military research and survey vessel, to dock at its Hambantota port from August 16 to 22 — despite India’s concerns. Earlier, the vessel was expected to dock from August 11 to 17, and was deferred due to protests by India.
Sri Lanka said its decision to allow the ship factored in the interests of all parties concerned in line with the “principle of sovereign equality of states”.
In his piece, envoy Qi wrote: “Looking back at the great history of the island, Sri Lanka overcame aggression from its northern neighbour 17 times, colonisation by the West for 450 years, and an anti-terrorism war for nearly 3 decades…is now still standing in the world bravely and proudly. Any infringement on the national sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka shall not be tolerated.”
He then went on to link this to the military vessel. “Approving a foreign vessel’s port call at Hambantota or any other port for replenishment is a decision made by the Sri Lankan government completely within its sovereignty, not to mention all the scientific research activities of ‘Yuan Wang 5’ comply with the international law and common international practice. External obstruction based on so-called ‘security concerns’ but without any evidence from certain forces is de facto a thorough interference into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence. Fortunately, with China and Sri Lanka’s joint efforts, the incident was resolved properly, which not only safeguards Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence but also defends international fairness and justice once again,” the Chinese envoy said.
Seeking to draw a parallel between Sri Lanka and China in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the envoy wrote: “Just like Sri Lanka, China suffered a hundred years of humiliation from 1840 to 1949. Because of a similar dark experience, China has always been supporting Sri Lanka in the international fora for protecting its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. We will continue to do that. In contrast, some countries, far or near, always make various groundless excuses to bully Sri Lanka and trample on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence repeatedly.”
On Saturday night, over a day after the article, the Indian High Commission in Colombo hit back.
“We have noted the remarks of the Chinese Ambassador. His violation of basic diplomatic etiquette may be a personal trait or reflecting a larger national attitude. His view of Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves. India, we assure him, is very different,” the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka said.
“His imputing a geopolitical context to the visit of a purported scientific research vessel is a giveaway. Opaqueness and debt driven agendas are now a major challenge, especially for smaller nations. Recent developments are a caution. Sri Lanka needs support, not unwanted pressure or unnecessary controversies to serve another country’s agenda,” the Indian High Commission said.
The Yuan Wang 5 docked in Hambantota, a strategically important deep-sea port developed mostly using loans from Beijing.
‘Yuan Wang’-class ships are used to track satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches. China has around seven of these tracking ships that are capable of operating throughout the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. The ships supplement Beijing’s land-based tracking stations.
New Delhi was 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. Before Sri Lanka’s U-turn, India had rejected China’s “insinuations” that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the planned visit by the Chinese vessel but asserted it will take decisions based on its security concerns.
As Sri Lanka battles a severe economic crisis, India has provided humanitarian and economic assistance to the tune of $4 billion.