What is Colombo playing at?

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

India’s Sri Lanka policy has always been flawed. Sri Lanka is a sovereign State and, therefore, its sovereignty has to be respected under international law. But when the strategically placed nation across the Palk Strait allows its territory to be used inimical to the security concerns of India, then it becomes a different ball game altogether.

What is worrying New Delhi is that Colombo has become a pawn in the chessboard of Beijing’s geopolitical expansionist designs.

In September, a Chinese navy nuclear submarine docked at the Chinese-built port at Colombo despite New Delhi’s reservations. This was closely followed by another visit.

This was in complete defiance of protest by none other than India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. He told Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa that any presence of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka was unacceptable to India. The government has been left with no option but look upon Sri Lanka’s defiance as “inimical” to India’s interests.

Countering New Delhi’s protests, both Colombo and Beijing claim that there is nothing “unusual” about Chinese naval visits to Sri Lankan ports. “It is an international common practice for any navy submarine to stop for refuelling and crew refreshment at an overseas port,” an official from the Chinese defence ministry told the country’s national news agency. But, India’s point is that China is not just any other country.

India also views this as a violation of the July 1987 agreement, which says that “Trincomalee or any other port in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any other country prejudicial to India’s interests”. The agreement also calls upon the two countries to not allow their respective territories to be used for “activities prejudicial to each other’s unity, integrity and security”.

Writing in The Indian Express, strategic affairs expert C Raja Mohan raises the point that “how far Sri Lanka might go in its naval collaboration with China is linked to the nature of New Delhi’s relation with Colombo”.

If Sri Lanka is playing the Chinese card, Beijing is happy to take full advantage. What we don’t know is how New Delhi might respond if Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa overplays his hand.

During his visit to Colombo last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed his country’s plans to deepen and broaden defence cooperation with Sri Lanka. He went on to say that “if New Delhi wants to limit or reverse Colombo’s strategic tilt towards China, it should start with a comprehensive review of its policy towards Sri Lanka”.

This latest development in the Indian Ocean region can longer be deemed as a bilateral issue between New Delhi and Colombo. Sri Lanka has allowed a non-SAARC navy into the region and India has every right to raise the issue at the SAARC summit whenever it takes place.

What is gratifying is that with a new regime in place in New Delhi, there is a shift in the strategic posturing vis-à-vis China. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama issued a joint statement during the former’s visit to Washington in October, it referred to the situation in the South China Sea.

When the Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya was sailing from Russia in November 2013, a Chinese submarine was caught keeping an eye on it in the Indian Ocean region. Despite repeated assurances from Colombo that China does not have a military presence in the island nation, the whole thing sounds hollow.

According to The Times of India, coinciding with the election of Rajapaksa as president in 2006, assistance from China has increased manifold. Of the total aid of $5.06 billion extended to Sri Lanka from 1971 to 2012, around 94 percent or $4.76 billion came between 2005 and 2012. With its no-strings-attached policy, China has replaced Japan as Sri Lanka’s No. 1 donor.

Mandarins in New Delhi believe that the Chinese have been favoured in Sri Lanka despite the commercial and economic viability of their projects being suspect.

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