New players, old rules: Sri Lanka's bond with China 'dangerous' for India
Sri Lankan leaders have given assurances to India from time to time that nothing 'inimical' to India's security will be permitted within the territory or territorial waters of Sri Lanka. But Colombo does not seem to be adequately sensitive to New Delhi's security concerns.
The reported meeting of Chinese Ambassador in Colombo Qi Zhenhong with Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe on August 6, 2022 offers yet another indication that Beijing continues to enjoy with Colombo the kind of relationship it had in the past.
Observers say that last month, Sri Lanka's Ministry of Foreign Affairs had given "diplomatic clearance" for China's Yuan Wang 5 to stop in the port of Hambantota from August 11 to 17. Subsequently, the Ministry communicated to the Embassy of the People's Republic of China to defer, "until further consultations," the visit of the said vessel. The Chinese embassy has so far given no response thereto. Ambassador Qi chose instead to meet President Wickremesinghe.
Beijing claims Yuan Wang 5 is an innocuous space and satellite tracking vessel. But the vessel is a naval surveillance one with military capability. Given the long history of arguments between India and China and the latter's continued aggressive policies in the region, the arrival of any such vessel in close proximity to the south Indian coast constitutes a threat to India.
New Delhi has done well to make Colombo aware of its concerns in the matter. In his talks with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Cambodia the other day, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar took up the issue of the ship's visit.
On their part, Sri Lankan leaders have given assurances to India from time to time that nothing "inimical" to India's security will be permitted within the territory or territorial waters of Sri Lanka. In his maiden speech as Sri Lanka's President, Wickremesinghe highlighted Indian assistance during his country's economic crisis. He also regretted that traditional Sri Lanka-Japan ties had been adversely affected by the [Rajapaksa] government's opposition to Japanese projects.
But Colombo does not seem to be adequately sensitive to New Delhi's security concerns. This is hardly surprising. In domestic politics, Wickremesinghe had been very close to the notorious Rajapakse dynasty which was closely aligned with the communist regime in Beijing. In the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to Taiwan, Wickremesinghe affirmed the island nation's commitment to the 'One China Policy' and asked countries to "refrain from provocations".
President Wickremesinghe seems to calculate he could gain from his proximity to Chinese President Xi Jinping. In his message to Sri Lanka's new president, Xi said that he was "ready to provide support and assistance to the best of my ability to President Wickremesinghe and the people of Sri Lanka in their efforts" to bring the island nation out of its present crisis.
Pertinently, Wickremesinghe's China connection is quite old. In May 2017, as Sri Lanka's then Premier, he met his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. He attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
The observers say the Colombo-Beijing connection may prove dangerous for India. New Delhi would do well to keep a close watch on it and activate its diplomacy to see to it that Colombo does not function in a manner detrimental to India's security interests. New Delhi must simultaneously keep itself adequately prepared to foil any sinister Chinese designs in the region.
(Jagdish N. Singh is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. He is also Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, New York)
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