If Sri Lanka did not know or understand this sufficiently before, hopefully it does by now — Delhi has a really serious problem with Colombo’s do-we-care attitude to its security concerns. Since it came to light that a Chinese military vessel, the Yuan Wang 5, was to call at Hambantota Port on August 11 and stay over for a week, India had been pressing its grave concern over this to Colombo. After a tense week of negotiations between the two South Asian neighbours, Sri Lanka has told the Chinese that the visit of the ship “be deferred until further consultations are made on this matter”. The Sri Lankan note verbale appears to convey that the matter is still open for negotiation, but it would be unfortunate if Colombo believes it can invite the ship back at a later date. China’s Yuan Wang vessels are strategic platforms, and they form part of the People’s Liberation Army support force. A vessel of its surveillance reach has never before sailed in the waters that Yuan Wang wishes to access. The Sri Lankan attempt to pass it off as a “research vessel” on an innocuous refuelling stop was either naive or disingenuous, but in either case, self-defeating.
China vs India on its soil is hardly a sporting fixture that Sri Lanka can watch from the ringside without getting hurt itself. This is the second time in 19 months that Colombo has tried to make light of India’s security concerns on account of the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. Last January, the Sri Lankan government awarded a renewable energy project on three islands close to the Tamil Nadu coastline, to a Chinese firm. It took much diplomatic energy on India’s part, and a commitment to develop the same project through a grant, to have that decision reversed. India’s massive assistance to Sri Lanka since January was certainly not tagged with the note that Colombo should stop being friends with Beijing. But a cavalier attitude to India’s real security concerns is a sure way to lose Delhi’s goodwill at a time that Sri Lanka needs it most.
The timing of the Foreign Ministry’s clearance to the ship reinforces a worry that is true for India’s entire neighbourhood. Instability in any country in the region, whether that is Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan or Afghanistan, tends to impact India adversely and in unexpected ways. The Chinese ship apparently got its clearance from the Foreign Ministry on July 12. This was three days after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to flee in a navy boat as a sea of people stormed his official home. Clearly, there were some who believed that the political vacuum in Sri Lanka was ripe for exploitation. Who exactly gave that clearance should be a matter of interest in Colombo, as that person was not just acting on behalf of interests inimical to India, but against the interests of Sri Lanka as well, by trying to sabotage the new equilibrium in the relationship.