Oct 2022

Vying for influence

Sudha Ramachandran assesses the controversy surrounding the berthing of a Chinese ship at Hambantota Port, and its ongoing impact for China, India and Sri Lanka

India has signalled to Sri Lanka that it will not stand by quietly if the Sri Lankan government concedes to Chinese demands that undermine Indian security concerns.

On August 25, India’s Ministry of External Affairs called on Indian nationals living in, or travelling to, Sri Lanka ‘to exercise all care and caution’ while in the country, especially regarding ‘currency convertibility and the fuel situation’.

The Indian advisory came three days after the Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang-5 left Hambantota Port in southern Sri Lanka, having docked there from August 16 to 22, ostensibly to replenish supplies. A third-generation space-tracking ship, the Yuan Wang-5 is reportedly used to monitor satellite and missile launches.

Yuan Wang-5’s docking in Sri Lanka has stirred controversy. The Sri Lankan government had initially permitted it to anchor at Hambantota Port between August 11 and 17. However, New Delhi raised concerns over this, with Indian analysts drawing attention to the ship’s capacity to surveil Indian defence installations in southern India. Subsequently, Sri Lankan officials announced that the Chinese vessel’s visit was being deferred ‘until further consultations’.

Sri Lanka’s withdrawal of its approval for the Yuan Wang-5 to berth at Hambantota Port reportedly infuriated the Chinese. A string of meetings between Chinese and Sri Lankan officials followed in Beijing and Colombo, which culminated in Sri Lanka re-inviting the Chinese ship to dock at its port.

Consequently, the Yuan Wang-5 berthed at Hambantota Port between August 16 and 22.

The episode not only highlighted abject U-turning on the part of Sri Lankan decision-makers, it also laid bare China’s continuing clout in Colombo. For it was Beijing that emerged victorious in the behind-the-scenes Sino-Indian tug-of-war over the Yuan Wang-5’s docking.

This battle for influence in Sri Lanka has intensified over the past decade. Prior to that, India, given its geographic proximity and millennia-long cultural and ethnic links with its island neighbour, was the one that held greater sway.

Chinese research ship Yuan Wang-5 a
SHIPPING VIEWS: India expressed concern over Yuan Wang-5’s capacity to surveil Indian defence installations

However, following its robust military support for the Sri Lankan government during the civil war, China’s role in post-war Sri Lanka began to expand rapidly. Building on the ruling Rajapaksa family’s ties with Beijing, China swiftly emerged as Sri Lanka’s largest investor and trade partner. It extended multi-billion-dollar loans to Colombo for infrastructure projects, several of which turned out to be white elephants.

Soon Sri Lanka was struggling with a mountain of unpaid Chinese loans. The pandemic hit the island’s tourism-dependent economy hard and by 2019, it was in the grip of a crippling foreign exchange crisis that led to severe shortages of essential commodities. Mass protests culminated in the ouster of the Rajapaksas from power.

In recent years, India has stepped up its efforts to regain influence lost to the Chinese. It has been fairly successful, even managing to push the Chinese aside on certain ventures. This was the case with the wind power projects in islets in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, located near the Indian coast.

When the economic crisis erupted, India swung into action. It extended Sri Lanka around $3.8 billion in the form of lines of credit, loans and humanitarian aid. China, meanwhile, did little to bail Colombo out. Blamed for the crisis, Beijing’s standing in the eyes of the Sri Lankan people declined. And with the ouster of the Rajapaksas from power, it did seem that Chinese influence in Colombo had waned.

So when news first emerged that Sri Lanka was permitting the Yuan Wang-5 to dock, Indian analysts rapped Colombo for its ingratitude and its failure to show sensitivity to Indian concerns, despite the support New Delhi had extended to Sri Lanka in its hour of need.

When Sri Lanka’s economic crisis erupted, India swung into action

Having expected Colombo to call off the ship’s visit, India was therefore taken by surprise when Colombo subsequently re-invited the Chinese. While Chinese pressure on Sri Lanka is likely to have forced Colombo to renew its invitation to Yuan Wang-5, New Delhi was in no mood to express sympathy for Colombo’s predicament. After all, Colombo has rarely shown understanding for Indian concerns. What is more, India had doled out $3.8 billion to the Sri Lankans when few others were willing to bail it out.

The decision to remind Sri Lanka of its economic leverage over the island followed when India issued an advisory that would impact tourist arrivals in the island.

Sri Lanka registered 1,839 Indian tourist arrivals on August 1. Although daily Indian arrivals were dropping from the first week of August, it was not only below the monthly average but also remained ‘consistently in the low 800s and high 700s’ in the last week of the month, when the Indian advisory began taking effect, according to the Sri Lankan web portal Economy Next.

Announcing the advisory, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said: ‘Our endeavor is to prevent any untoward incidents involving Indians outside India.’ But if it was solely the safety and wellbeing of its nationals that determined the warning, India would have issued an advisory earlier.

Yet it did not, even at the height of the crisis, when people were struggling for food, fuel and medicines, or when clashes between Sri Lankan forces and protestors turned violent.

The advisory in late August was therefore aimed at sending Sri Lanka a message that its insensitivity to Indian concerns will have repercussions.

wind power projects in islets in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province
India shunted China aside on wind power projects in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province

India slammed China’s ‘opaqueness and debt-driven agendas’

Less than a fortnight later, India dealt Sri Lanka another rap on the knuckles. It pulled up the Sri Lankan government at the United Nations Human Rights Council over its ‘lack of measurable progress’ in implementing its commitments for a political solution to ethnic conflict in the country. In addition, New Delhi called on Colombo to fully implement the 13thAmendment to its Constitution, to ensure devolution of power to provincial governments, and to hold provincial council elections at the earliest.

According to The Wire, India’s strongly worded statement at the UNHRC is its ‘most severe criticism of the Sri Lankan government to date, in recent years’.

At the height of the crisis in Sri Lanka, China adopted a low profile, prompting some analysts to interpret this as indicative of Beijing’s declining interest in Sri Lanka. With the crisis in the Taiwan Strait heating up, China would not want distractions in distant seas to detract from its focus on waters closer to home, they said.

But the Yuan Wang-5 episode, which saw China hit back robustly against Colombo’s withdrawal of approval for the ship’s visit, has, in fact, underscored how, preoccupied or not with the situation in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing’s interest in the Indian Ocean, and thus in Sri Lanka, has not diminished.

Additionally, Colombo’s withdrawal of the invitation to the Yuan Wang-5 was a loss of face for Beijing. To ignore tiny, bankrupt Sri Lanka’s ‘rude’ rescinding of its invitation – albeit under pressure from India – would be damaging to China’s image as a rising power. It would have sent a message to other countries that China will not respond to insults.

Controversy over the Yuan Wang-5’s docking in Sri Lanka did not end when the ship left Sri Lankan waters. In an article published in the Sri Lankan media just days after the vessel’s departure, the Chinese ambassador in Colombo Qi Zhenhong slammed India, without openly naming the country, for its ‘rude and unreasonable interference’ in blocking the Yuan Wang 5 from berthing at Hambantota port. India hit back by blaming Sri Lanka’s crisis on China’s ‘opaqueness and debt-driven agendas’.

The Yuan Wang-5 episode and subsequent events have underscored to New Delhi that, despite its own aid to Sri Lanka during the ongoing crisis, it is Beijing that wields the most significant clout over Colombo. As a result, the Sino-Indian battle for influence in Sri Lanka is sure to heat up in the coming months.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in