Few in India remember that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government had first offered the Hambantota port project to India. China took it on only after India turned down the offer. India’s private sector was not keen or perhaps lacked the expertise at that time. Today there is much heartburn over the Chinese research and survey vessel the Yuan Wang 5, docking in Hambantota. Fears that the "spy ship" will use the opportunity to track India’s underwater and maritime installations across its vast coastline is very real. This concern has grown in the last two decades as Chinese submarines and ships make frequent reconnaissance around the Indian Ocean-island states. Now with China regarding the four nation quadrilateral between US, Japan, India and Australia as a move to contain China’s military might in the Indo-Pacific (which extends also to the Indian Ocean), rivalry in the Indian Ocean has been revving up. South Asian nations are being wooed assiduously by the two Asian rivals. While this works out well for many of India’s smaller neighbours, occasionally it also lands them under massive pressure from both sides.
For President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government the Chinese request for the PLA Navy ship to dock in Hambantota this month was a difficult moment. The President has always been a fast friend of India, and his initial reaction was to ask China to defer the visit. That did not amuse China, knowing well that Colombo was under pressure from New Delhi. China did the same with its embassy in Sri Lanka seeking an urgent meeting with the foreign office. At the same time Beijing is said to have cancelled a promotional campaign launched by the Sri Lankan embassy.
The Chinese vessel was one among the nearly 60 foreign naval ships that visit the island’s ports each month. Many of the vessels are Indian, but this year alone there were stopovers by French, Japanese, German and Bangladeshi ships. According to local news reports in March this year INS Chennai and INS Teg, both made a port call at Colombo. Last October six ships of the Indian Navy’s training squadron visited both Colombo and Trincomalee ports.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was criticised for bowing to Indian pressure. Finally after facing flak from several quarters including former navy chief Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara who publicly questioned the move, the government allowed the Chinese vessel to sail on to Hambantota Port on August 16.
In his first comments on the issue foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar said at a Bangkok news conference: "What happens in our neighbourhood, any development, which has a bearing on our security issues, is of interest to us. I think a spokesman had said some time ago, we obviously monitor any development, which has a bearing on our interests very, very carefully. So, I think I will leave at that," PTI quoted Jaishankar as saying. Considering the testy ties with China since the military confrontation in Ladakh the trust deficit between Asia’s two major powers has widened considerably. So New Delhi will be closely watching the Yuan Wang 5. The ship which was originally to have left Hambantota port on August 19 after a three day call, but that was extended till August 22.
There is indignation among several sections in India that while New Delhi was first on the block to help Sri Lanka in its hour of economic crisis, and Beijing has been dilly-dallying and not stepped in immediately. Yet, according to many of the disappointed Indians, Colombo had not stopped to consider New Delhi’s security options.
The truth is that President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government need both India and China, and indeed help from as many countries as possible to stabilise its economy. All countries take their own strategic decision. So much like India does not want to be forced to choose between the US and its allies and Russia, Sri Lanka too wants good relations with both India and China. Whether India or China likes it or not it will be of little consequence. Nations do what they have to for their self-interest.
Old Ceylon-China Connection:
The general view in India is that Sri Lanka tilted heavily towards China during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure. But that is only partly true. Sri Lanka’s ties with China was set as early as 1952 by the Ceylon-China-Rubber-Rice pact. At that time Sri Lanka was facing a severe shortage of foreign exchange thanks to the crash in rubber prices following the end of the Korean war. Sri Lanka needed rice to feed her people and also needed to sell rubber to get much needed foreign exchange. China was in a similar position looking to buy rubber and sell rice. So a barter trade between Ceylon and China was signed and sealed, which was mutually beneficial. The rubber rice agreement was during the United National Party regime. But the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party also had excellent ties with Communist China.
One of Colombo’s iconic buildings the Bandarnaike Memorial International Conference Hall was a gift from the Chinese to honour SWRD Bandaranaike the founder of the SLFP.
Between 2000 and 2010 as China became rich and its ambitions soared, Sri Lanka as an island nation, close to the Indian mainland attracted massive investments for major projects. The old friendship between China and Sri Lanka was revived during Sri Lanka’s military campaign against the LTTE, when Beijing provided arms to Mahinda Rajapakse’s government. This was when countries like India (for its own domestic compulsions) and several western nations refused. Rajapaksa was grateful to China and the two countries grew closer politically. Sri Lanka signed into President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. The projects included the Hambantota port and an international airport in the same city, the Norocholai Power Station and the ambitious Colombo Port City Project, that was launched during President Xi’s visit to the island in 2014.
China’s massive infrastructure projects have been roundly criticized by the US, Western nations and India as forcing poor nations into a debt trap. In fact Hambantota port project is a perfect example when unable to pay the debt it had to be leased for 99-years to China.
Yet there are many sections within both the bureaucracy and the Left leaning parties like the JVP, who believe that it is important to balance out New Delhi’s over-arching political, cultural, economic influence with excellent ties with China. Sri Lanka had a strong Leftist socio political movement in the 1970s as well as the late 1980s to early 1990s.
For sections who dislike India, the fact that New Delhi played a major role in arming and supporting Tamil militant groups including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have always been a sore point. There are many in the island state that does not trust India and believe that Colombo needs the China option to retain its strategic autonomy.