China’s influence in Sri Lanka is worrisome but India must not stop financial aid

On August 16, Yuan Wang-5—a Chinese naval vessel—finally docked in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. Operated by the People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force, this ‘research vessel’ can monitor/gather satellite and technical intelligence and also track the trajectories of ballistic missiles. This episode has raised several questions about India’s assistance to crisis-hit Sri Lanka, Colombo’s lack of gratitude for India, and China’s relevance in the region. But India has fewer options except to counter China’s symbolic and strategic messaging, both within and beyond the region.

The episode of docking began amidst political and economic turmoil. The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry agreed to host the Chinese vessel on July 12 when its President had already fled. Initially, the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry rejected these claims in public. However, in late July, it was confirmed that the vessel would be docking in Hambantota from 11-17 August for ‘replenishment’ purposes and that there was nothing unusual about it. However, considering the ship’s potential to track and survey Indian defence and nuclear instalments in its Southern states, New Delhi expressed its concerns.

On August 4, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister met his Indian and Chinese counterparts in Cambodia and received verbal guarantees of further assistance from both. It is quite likely that China demanded guarantees to dock Yuan Wang-5 in these meetings, and India asked to deter the same. Soon after, the Sri Lankan government requested China to defer the vessel docking until further considerations.

Following this development, China indirectly urged India to not disturb its normal exchanges and legitimate maritime activities. The Chinese embassy also sought an urgent meeting with the Sri Lankan authorities and allegedly held a closed-door meeting with the President. Following these meetings, China received its new dates of docking from 16-22 August. Sri Lanka defended this move by citing its ‘international obligations’ and by ruling out the research activities for the vessel in Sri Lankan waters.

It appears that China’s pressure has played a significant role in docking the ship. This keenness can be explained by three potential reasons.

First, China urges that it will replenish and refuel its vessel in Sri Lanka. But, in that case, Sri Lanka should not be an ideal destination for replenishment, considering its persistent food and fuel shortages and skyrocketing inflation. In other words, replenishment in Sri Lanka does not seem to be the prime motive as it will prove to be a costly affair for Beijing when it can easily find cheaper alternatives.

Second, there is a growing interest in Beijing to conduct research/surveys and use oceans for its space-related assignments. The docking could then be a genuine attempt to further China’s research objectives. But there is a contrast here too. While Sri Lanka has imposed restrictions on research, China has maintained that docking is a part of its marine research activities. Given the context, restrictions from the Sri Lankan government could be to appease India and calm its security anxieties.

While the first two explanations are reasonable to some extent, they still do not justify China’s intense enthusiasm to dock the ship. However, this could be reasoned with an explanation that is subtle, yet more symbolic and strategic.

Traditionally, Beijing’s response to the Sri Lankan crisis has been passive (see graph). It has withheld Colombo’s requests for financial assistance, worth US $ 4 billion, and loan restructuring, hoping to leverage them to further its interests. China’s attempts to expedite the Free Trade Agreement negotiations with Sri Lanka has been one such instance. In this context, the harbouring of the ‘spy ship’ should not be read differently.

China has used Colombo’s compulsion to deliver a strong message to India and the world—regardless of its assistance, Beijing still holds significant leverage in Sri Lanka and could challenge India in its backyard. This is something that China could be more determined to show to the world as its tensions with Taiwan continue to escalate.

China will also likely continue to compel Sri Lanka to toe with its interests in the future with no guarantees of assistance. China realises that President Wickremesinghe will depend on Rajapaksa’s loyalists for his political survival and also remain sensitive to Chinese interests to improve the economic situation. Further, with Sri Lanka People’s Front parliamentarians lobbying to dock the ship and welcoming the vessel, it appears that Beijing is reviving its elite-capture networks in the country.