The Yuan Wang 5 affair turns out to be a storm in a teacup
Posted on August 13th, 2022

By P.K.Balachandran Courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Colombo, August 12 (Counterpoint): The geopolitical controversy over Sri Lanka’s granting permission to the Chinese survey and tracking vessel Yuan Wag 5 at the Hambantota port from August 11 to 17, has blown over with India and the US finally taking an accommodative stance.

The vessel, which was in the vicinity of the Hambantota port in South Sri Lanka, is likely to dock soon.

India had delivered a demarche to the Sri Lankan government expressing its objections to the docking of the vessel on the grounds that it could spy on vital Indian installations in South India. But on Friday, India’s External Affairs Ministry categorically rejected insinuations that it had mounted pressure on Sri Lanka regarding the said vessel. Speaking during the weekly media briefing held by the Ministry, Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi emphasized that Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation, which can make its own independent decisions.”

According to www.timesonline.lk the Sri Lankan government had sought from the Indian High Commission and the US embassy, concrete reasons” for objecting to the docking of the vessel. When they could not give such reasons, the Lankan government decided to grant permission to the vessel to berth at the harbor.

Earlier, due to the concerns raised by the Indian and US embassies, the Lankan Foreign Ministry had asked the Chinese Ambassador to defer” the arrival of the vessel to give time for consultations”.

The Chinese came back to say that the demand for deferment was unacceptable as the vessel was on a perfectly legitimate scientific mission and was wanting to docking at the port only for replenishment. China suggested that Sri Lanka was being pressured to deny permission by a third party” in violation of Sri Lankan sovereignty. The objection was senseless”, China said in a communique released in Beijing.          

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs thinks that Sri Lanka is a transport hub in the Indian ocean. Many scientific exploration ships including those from China have stopped at the ports of Sri Lanka for resupplies. China has always exercised freedom of navigation in the high seas and fully respects the jurisdiction of coastal states in respect of scientific exploration activities within their jurisdictional waters.”

Sri Lanka is a sovereign state. It can develop relations with other countries, in light of its own development interest. Cooperation between Sri Lanka and China are independently chosen by the two countries based on common interests. It doesn’t target a third party. Citing security concerns is senseless, to pressure Sri Lanka.”

China urges the relevant parties to see China’s scientific exploration in a reasonable and sensible way and stop disturbing normal exchange of cooperation between China and Sri Lanka,” the communique said.

India’s grievance was that Sri Lanka had not kept it informed about the arrival of the vessel. India and Sri Lanka are part of an institution called Security and Growth for All in the Region” or SAGAR, that is meant to build an inclusive and cooperative approach to regional security. India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are part of a scheme to keep track of movements in the Indian Ocean Region under the rubric of Maritime Domain Awareness”. Sri Lanka ought to have informed India about the permission given to the vessel to dock in Hambantota, but it did not. India came to know about it independently. Hence the demarche.

Sri Lanka’s reasoning that the vessel is on a harmless scientific mission and not on an intelligence-gathering mission did not convince New Delhi and  Washington. Colombo was felt constrained to ask China to defer the arrival of the vessel to allow time for consultations.

China’s subsequent rejection of the objections put Colombo in a fix. It needed India’s financial support to tide over the economic crisis. India had already loaned US$ 3.8 billion. On the other hand, Colombo could also not alienate China, which had to cooperate to enable Sri Lanka to get an IMF bailout. The West, Japan and the IMF, had all said that China would have to take a haircut” like Sri Lanka’s other creditors so that a collective loan repayment schedule could be worked out. In other words, Sri Lanka could not alienate any of the parties involved in the Sri Lankan imbroglio.

However, none of the parties wanted Sri Lanka to sink. Therefore, a compromise was worked out so that the vessel could dock. Since the Sri Lanka navy is in charge of security in Hambantota port (though a Chinese company had taken it on a 99-year lease), Lankan naval officers could board the ship at any time they want.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is working under tremendous pressure to shore up the ailing economy amidst stiff political opposition, would have heaved a sigh of relief that the imbroglio over the ship finally turned out to be a storm in a teacup.

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