Tightrope walk in trying times | Daily News

Tightrope walk in trying times

India; Dependent friend, China; Close economic partner
Then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe meeting Indian Prime  Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in April 2017.
Then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in April 2017.


In his message of congratulations to new Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured continuous assistance to Sri Lanka, describing the giant neighbour as a dependent friend of Sri Lanka. This candid choice of word is all the more important as it came at a time Colombo has given permission for the Chinese vessel Yuna Wang 5 to enter Port of Hambantota from August 11-17, mainly for replenishment, including fuel.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative Sri Lanka (BRISL) that Yuan Wang 5 would conduct space tracking, satellite control and research tracking in the North-Western part of the Indian Ocean Region through August and September.

India, for obvious reasons, keeps track of Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean region, especially in the ocean close to its Southern tip. Sri Lanka, having maintained good relations with regional and international powers, always kept itself away from power rivalry. In line with the foreign policy of neutrality, Sri Lanka allows foreign Naval ships to enter its ports and waters for friendly visits, joint military exercises and for fuel and logistic requirements.

Defence Ministry Spokesperson Col. Nalin Herath clarified the Chinese vessel will call on Hambantota for logistic support. He pointed out that “such vessels periodically come from various countries such as India, China, Japan and Australia. It is nothing unusual.” The Defence Ministry clarified that the Chinese research vessel, Yuan Wang 5, was granted permission under the ‘freedom of navigation’ principle in the Indian Ocean.

Indian External Affairs Spokesman Aridam Bagchi–former Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo - said the Indian Government is carefully monitoring the vessel’s movement in the Indian Ocean. “The Government carefully monitors any developments having a bearing on India’s security and economic interests, and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them,” he said.

The Chinese vessel has high capabilities of surveillance and sea wave research and the vessel is expected to arrive at Hambantota Port next Thursday. The ship is sailing from China directly to Hambantota Port before returning to China. Following its research in the North West of the Indian Ocean, it would return to Hambantota Port for replenishment.

Harbour Master of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Captain Nirmal de Silva also confirmed that the Chinese vessel would be here for replenishment during a research operation in the North West Indian Ocean during the months of August and September.

Then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the One-Belt-One-Road conference held in Beijing, China in May 2017.

India considers the Indian Ocean Region as an area of traditional influence and concern about other Naval powers intruding into the area. However, Sri Lanka has a perfect understanding with New Delhi on these issues and periodical high-level meetings between leaders of the two countries have succeeded in sorting out issues to smoothen ruffled feathers, if any.

It is evident from Prime Minister Modi’s messages to President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Gunawardena that New Delhi is willing to continuously assist Sri Lanka as a dependable friend and the two new leaders at helm of power in Colombo too expressed similar sentiments to Indian leaders.

While Prime Minister Modi has assured that India will continue to be supportive of the quest of the people of Sri Lanka for stability and economic recovery, through established democratic means, institutions and constitutional framework, President Wickremesinghe, in his address to Parliament on August 3, thanked India for magnanimous contributions to Sri Lanka to face the unprecedented economic challenges.


Indo - Lanka ties

The Indian Prime Minister also conveyed that he looked forward to working closely with the Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister for the mutual benefit of people and strengthening the age-old, close and friendly relations between India and Sri Lanka.

India is well aware of the circumstances under which the Hambantota Port was constructed and how the control of the harbour was shared by China and Sri Lanka, when the latter found its inability to pay back the loan taken from China to build the port. Sri Lanka, in fact, offered the Hambantota Port Project to India first, and when New Delhi felt it was not commercially viable, Colombo offered the project to China. Now Sri Lanka shares the management of the Hambantota Port with China. The administration of commercial activities has been formally handed over to China Merchant Port Holdings in 2017, on a 99-year lease.

Pro-LTTE lobbies in Tamil Nadu attempt to make use of the arrival of Chinese vessel to Hambantota to ruffle good relations between India and Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu minor political party, PattaliMakkalKatchi (PMK) founder S. Ramadoss labeled it as a ‘spy ship from China’. He said the Chinese spy ship Yuan Wang-5 docking in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port is a threat to India and particularly to Southern states including Tamil Nadu as the ship can read all facilities up to 750 kilometres using the satellites.”

Ramadoss alleged that ‘the Chinese spy ship’ is also accused of violating passage requirements in territorial seas as per the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). However, New Delhi is well aware of rhetoric of radical political groups in Tamil Nadu and will take its own decisions, while closely monitoring foreign vessels entering the region.

China said it was only a part of its “legitimate maritime activities”. “China hopes that the relevant parties will view and report on China’s marine scientific research activities correctly and refrain from interfering with normal and legitimate maritime activities,” the Foreign Ministry Spokesman said in Beijing.


Economic and fiscal crisis

To bail out Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring in the face of economic and fiscal crisis, India was the first to offer substation loan facilities in addition to supply of essential items. Now China too is expected to come forth. China’s Exim Bank commenced credit-restructuring negotiations with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s ambassador to China, Palitha Kohonoa announced that the request for US$ 4 billion emergency aid package is being considered favourably by China. Beijing also will help to boost trade, investments and tourism.

China has also reportedly promised Sri Lanka of its support in obtaining IMF assistance. And on the IMF’s conclusions after negotiations with Sri Lanka would remain aid, if any, from the Western nations and other ‘independent financial institutions’ like the World Bank.

Already Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has endorsed Sri Lanka’s appeal for IMF assistance.

All in all President Wickremesinghe and Premier Gunawardena have kept excellent relations with New Delhi and Beijing and maintained absolute impartiality in foreign relations, a fact understood by the two regional powers.



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