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Chinese spy ship left Sri Lanka but it portrayed an India plagued by chronic insecurities and anxieties


From the ramparts of Red Fort, the prime minister has given a call for India to become a developed nation by 2047, but what does it mean to become “developed”? Are development, growth, and composite national power enough, or should there be a commensurate change in attitude? A nation with great power ambitions needs to be confident in its actions and choices. It cannot afford to wallow in self-doubt and anxiety at every step.

To quote C Raja Mohan, “the fears of a ‘developing nation’ can’t be the guiding principles for the diplomacy of a ‘developed nation’.

And yet India’s chronic insecurities were all on display over the recent incident of a Chinese spy ship docking at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. Yuan Wang 5, a tracking vessel capable of surveillance and monitoring of satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, has left Sri Lankan shores after a brief docking for “replenishment” from 16-22 August, but it leaves behind a debate that portrays India as insecure, too thin-skinned for its own good, lacking in patience, forbearance and confidence.

Worse, the shaming and blaming of Sri Lanka in popular and even strategic discourse — that may well reflect the mood in power corridors of New Delhi — indicate that we have learnt nothing when it comes to neighbourhood diplomacy despite our past experiences and are still bent on living up to the image of a ‘big brother’ to smaller neighbours.

The narrative went that Sri Lanka is “ungrateful”, that it betrayed us despite our “generous support” in its hour of crisis, that it cannot be “trusted”. Its decision to allow the Chinese spy ship to dock at its port was even called a “diplomatic slap” to New Delhi.

There could be legitimate concerns over the powerful snooping capabilities of the Chinese spy ship — chock-full of state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and tracking devices — and the dangers it poses to India’s military installations by docking at our near seas. Blaming Sri Lanka for it, however, is insensitive, futile, and counterproductive.

In this piece, I shall explore three broad talking points. Whether Sri Lanka could have done anything else than it did, if there is a case for India’s strategic altruism, and how New Delhi may deal with China’s evolving Indian Ocean strategy.

A close look at the reports surrounding the docking of Yuan Wang 5, one among a class of seven tracking ships that operate throughout the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic oceans, indicate that Sri Lanka could have done precious little once China placed a ‘request’ for “replenishment”.

Colombo took on board India’s concerns, tried to reason with China, got threatened in Xi Jinping regime’s signature style, and tried to arrive at an amicable solution because the crisis-ridden country needs help from both sides and cannot afford to choose or antagonise one in favour of another. As a vocal proponent of a multipolar world, India shouldn’t have trouble in grasping this.

Reports indicate that acting on security concerns raised by India, Sri Lanka did impose some restrictions on the vessel. Yuan Wang 5 was granted access a few days after it was originally supposed to dock (on 11 August), and permission for berthing at the Chinese-owned deep-sea port came on conditions that the ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) will remain switched on and no ‘scientific research’ can be carried out in Sri Lankan waters. Rotation of personnel was also disallowed during the port call.

Whether or not China adhered to these conditions is an open question, but it doesn’t seem as if Colombo ‘blatantly ignored’ New Delhi’s concerns, rather it attempted to strike a negotiated balance crucial to its well-being and interest. It isn’t clear why Sri Lanka should be blamed for looking to secure own interests.

Worth noting here that while majority of Sri Lanka’s external debt is owed to private creditors, China still holds a sizeable share of the pie, and remains Sri Lanka’s single-largest bilateral creditor. Though figures vary due to methods of calculation, some estimates say “about 26% of Lanka’s foreign debt to be restructured are owed to Chinese creditors.”

So far, Beijing has stalled all requests from Colombo for debt restructuring, has put on hold a currency swap deal because Sri Lanka lacks forex liquidity, has refused to negotiate relief and has turned a deaf ear to appeals for bridge financing to the tune of $4 billion. Sri Lanka is critically dependent on China. Unless Beijing agrees to write off or restructure loans, the IMF won’t provide the funds that Lanka’s struggling economy desperately needs.

As The Diplomat quotes an IMF official, as saying, “Sri Lanka should engage proactively with China on a debt restructuring” because it is essential for the country’s economic recovery.

That puts enormous leverage in China’s hands, one that the Xi regime isn’t shy of using. Once Colombo asked China to postpone the ship’s visit apparently owing to India’s apprehensions, China was reportedly “furious”.

Nikkei Asia reports, quoting “highly placed sources” in Lanka’s foreign ministry, that Lanka’s August 6 request for a delay in the vessel’s docking resulted in several “high-level meetings in both Beijing and Colombo” where the Chinese expressed “dissatisfaction” and “were especially angry because approval was granted and then withdrawn.” The report goes on to the cite the official, as saying, that “Beijing warned of possible ramifications in relation to restructuring of Sri Lanka’s debt, as well as ongoing negotiations for a $4 billion aid package and a free trade agreement with China.”

Beijing’s tactic in South Asia of ensnaring nations on India’s periphery — that professor Srikanth Kondapalli calls “hexiao kongda (cooperate with the small to counter the big)” — through a mix of debt trap and coercive diplomacy should raise concerns in India but those concerns cannot be addressed and relevant solution cannot be found by blaming the smaller nations who have no wish to become a pawn in South Asia’s great geopolitical rivalry. Sri Lanka can hardly be blamed for attempting to balance between the two Asian giants.

At a bigger scale, India also faces coercive pressure in choosing between the West and Russia — a choice that has become starker since Russian invasion of Ukraine, and New Delhi has steadfastly refused to allow other powers to dictate its choices driven by its notion of strategic autonomy. It wouldn’t be acceptable for India, for instance, if tomorrow Washington asks New Delhi not to participate in the upcoming Russia-hosted military exercise, Vostok, where China is also taking part.

Helping Sri Lanka in its hour of need, even as a first responder, does not automatically give India the right to dictate terms or call for “punishment” or “lessons” should things not go New Delhi’s way. An indignant discourse dominated by such calls is a stunning example of short-sightedness. It is precisely this sort of myopic attitude that triggers resentment in India’s neighbourhood and ultimately harms India’s own security interests.

Besides, as knowledgeable voices have averred, China, in this instance, might be on firm legal ground.

Former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash (retired) points out in Indian Express that the 1982 UNCLOS agreement “permits unfettered freedom of navigation on the high seas and a foreign warship has as much right to be in the Indian Ocean as a similar Indian vessel would in the South China Sea.” Vessels enjoy right of “innocent passage” even on territorial waters of another state and docking in foreign ports with prior consent is allowed.

Admiral Prakash also points to the 1907 Hague Convention that “permits entry for warships of belligerents into neutral ports for limited durations” even during “wartime.” Therefore, he surmises, “given its cordial diplomatic relations, and its economic dependence on China, there could be no plausible reason for Sri Lanka to deny entry for Yuan Wang 5.”

Outlook reports that Yuan Wang 5 was “one among the nearly 60 foreign naval ships” that visit Sri Lankan ports each month, including vessels from France, Japan, Germany and Bangladesh this year alone. Evidently, it would have been difficult for Sri Lanka to refuse Yuan Wang 5 a berth under normal circumstances — absolutely impossible when it is bankrupt and wants China’s help to revive its economy.

Given the formidable surveillance capabilities of a spy ship as powerful as Yuan Wang class — that reportedly monitors space, satellites, and ICBMs — it wouldn’t require geographic proximity for electronic snooping, which has now anyway become commonplace.

India had declared that it was “closely monitoring” the movement of the ship, so, presumably it had precautionary measures in place. As Admiral Prakash writes, “One can also be sure that the position and movements of Yuan Wang 5, as long as she is in our waters, will be closely followed by the Indian Navy’s maritime domain awareness matrix.”

A stronger Sri Lanka is in India’s interest. It is for India to ensure that Sri Lanka doesn’t collapse and remains capable of contributing towards the security of Indian Ocean region. India has already given Sri Lanka assistance of around $4 billion in loans, credit lines and currency swaps since January 2002, apart from around $1.5 billion for fuel, food, medicines and fertilizers. However, New Delhi lacks the economic wherewithal to save the collapsing economy alone and must help Colombo in its efforts to get the relief that it seeks from Beijing and the IMF.

India’s security is inextricably tied to Sri Lanka’s — both countries along with Maldives and Mauritius are members of Colombo Security Conclave, a collective maritime security framework — and therefore it is also in India’s interest to show patience and adopt a Sri Lanka policy based on strategic altruism.

A lot has been written and said about India’s decision to hand over a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft to Colombo, ironically just a day ahead of the docking of the Chinese ship, but I would argue that the Narendra Modi government has done the right thing by taking a long view of bilateral ties.

Sri Lanka has acknowledged that India is the only country to have provided it with a credit line for fuel. On 24 August, amid the raging debate over the Chinese ship, New Delhi handed over a fresh consignment of fertilizer to Colombo amounting to 21000 tonnes in time for the forthcoming paddy season. This is in addition to the 44000 tonnes sent last month.

India has promised that it will assist Sri Lanka further following the island nation’s talks with the IMF for emergency funding.

By giving struggling Sri Lanka the benefit of strategic altruism, at a time when Lanka’s actions have raised concern at home, New Delhi may release bilateral ties from the cycle of expectations and disappointment and nullify to a certain extent the negative image of India that still prevails in some quarters. Those wondering about the prevalence of “anti-India lobby” in Sri Lanka despite “the help that India has extended to its neighbour” would do well to note that legacy issues tied to the Tamil minority question still cut deep.

Though India’s contribution during the latest crisis has been well received in Sri Lanka, the wounds of past are yet to completely heal. While domestic compulsions prevented India from extending help to Colombo when it was involved in a raging battle against the LTTE — the Tamil separatist movement — it was China that offered help. The China-Sri Lanka friendship, that began in the 1950s with the ‘Ceylon-China-Rubber-Rice pact’, thus gained renewed steam.

Conversely, India’s role remained a sore point. MR Narayan Swamy writes in The Wire that “Sri Lankans are not anti-India per se but there are historical reasons why an anti-India strand prevails in the country or why China is at times viewed as a friend. The dominant Sinhalese community remains deeply upset with India for training, arming and harbouring Tamil militants in the 1980s.”

Trust issues, whose roots lie in the past, are slowly being addressed as new generation of Lankans see the contrasting roles played by the two sides. Swamy further notes in the piece that avowed leftist groups in the country such as Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), that has “for decades riled against ‘Indian expansionism’… perhaps for the first time (this year), made India-friendly statements publicly and pledged not to overlook Indian interests.”

The current economic meltdown, therefore, is a seminal moment in bilateral ties. It presents India with an opportunity to address legacy trust issues and start afresh as a sympathetic neighbour whose help doesn’t come with strings attached or who is disinterested in using the assistance as a leverage for foreign policy objectives.

On the other hand, China, that has played a role in triggering the crisis, now not only seems unwilling to bail Sri Lanka out but is keen on weaponising its financial debt. Beijing is seen to be arm-twisting and blackmailing Colombo to further its military interests while being parsimonious on aid.

This, as Rupert Stone argues in The Interpreter, “reinforces China’s image as a predatory imperial power that is trying to exploit Sri Lanka for its own purposes.”

Juxtaposing these two behaviours does give India some soft power advantage over China, but New Delhi could extend the goodwill even more through a proactive neighbourhood policy focused on identifying what Sri Lanka needs, ensuring timely delivery and ironing out creases where they exist.

That could include a pact on fishing that remains a thorn in bilateral ties with both sides blaming . It is a complicated legacy that continues to generate ill will. Just this week, Sri Lankan Navy has reportedly arrested 10 Indian fishermen and seized their trawlers.

India could also see to it that projects initiated by it are finished on time. The Jaffna Cultural Centre, for instance, built at an Indian grant of $11 million in 2020 “as a public space to ‘promote, preserve and foster the cultural heritage of Jaffna’, and serve as ‘a hub of cultural activities’ in Sri Lanka” still awaits inauguration, notes The Hindu in a report filed in November last year.

The MEA has a division, inaugurated in January 2020, dedicated towards “dealing with heritage restoration projects undertaken by the Indian Government across the globe” but it isn’t clear if rebuilding work includes several temples, as Swamy points out in his piece for The Wire, in Sri Lanka “in the north and east destroyed during the years of war.”

India could also lend a hand in developing Sri Lanka’s food processing and dairy sectors and urge private players to take part. Demand for this exists and Sri Lanka is keen on India’s cooperation.

Bottomline remains that India must allow Colombo the space to make its own choices and shape its preferences instead of forcing it to choose while adopting a policy centred on strategic altruism and focused on delivering more.

That said, the question of Yuan Wang 5’s arrival in Sri Lanka also has serious security ramifications for India. The Yuan Wang class is categorized as a research vessel and not a military ship, per se, but no one in India, at least, buys the argument that a spy ship class run by the PLA’s Strategic Support Force had benign intentions in docking at Hambantota.

Evidently, Chinese naval activity in India’s regional waters is slated to grow. China already has the world’s largest fleet at 355 warships, according to latest US defence department data, and aims to build 460 vessels by 2030. It stands to reason that as a maritime great power, China would look to project power and dominate the near and far seas.

In Indian Ocean, Beijing seems to be employing a ‘pushing the envelope’ strategy aimed at establishing and normalizing its naval presence. As Abhijit Singh of ORF, a retired Indian naval officer, writes in Indian Express, “In the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, China has been sending not warships, but survey and research vessels, as a way of marking presence in the region. Beijing’s gameplan is to demonstrate to India and other Bay states that Chinese activities in the littoral are in keeping with China’s rising global heft.”

Calling the developments “cataclysmic”, professor Kondapalli of JNU writes that the space activities of Yuan Wang 5 — that may find permanent deployment in India’s near waters — are likely to support “forthcoming ‘fourth dimensional warfare’ in space, with implications for the Quad members.”

India has cause for alarm, but not panic, and certainly nothing could be achieved by bullying smaller neighbours. What India needs to focus on, as former chief of naval staff Admiral Prakash tells Hindustan Times, is “building its own capabilities and making more friends in the neighbourhood. You will see more and more Chinese naval activity in the region. How long can we keep protesting?”

To thwart China’s end state — normalizing its quasi-military presence in South Asian and Indian Ocean littorals — and mitigate the security concerns arising out of a rampaging Beijing’s hegemonic moves, India must find a way to reduce the power gap with China, invest in strategic tie-ups (such as space collaboration with ASEAN nations), and focus on strengthening delivery of public goods to smaller states on its periphery so that collective security imperatives become tighter.

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