Deferred China ship visit takes place amidst diplomatic row

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Sri Lanka cannot do without IMF’s support. Having declared its inability to service its foreign debt, Sri Lanka is struggling to reach a consensus with lenders and the IMF. Two of Sri Lanka’s major creditors, India and China, locked horns over a port visit by a Chinese ship. Sri Lanka should be wary of these developments as they tend to influence other lenders as well.”

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Navy deployed SLNS Gajabahu (formerly USCG Sherman) to safely move then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from Colombo to Trincomalee, in the wake of the massive public protests, apparently financed and instigated by hidden hands that brought the curtain down on his presidency. The President abandoned Janadhipathi Mandiraya, before 12 noon, on July 09.

The first couple disembarked at the Trincomalee harbour, on the morning of July 10, having left the Colombo port, on the evening of the previous day. First lady Iyoma like late first lady, JRJ’s spouse Elena, is a fine woman, the whole country can be rightfully proud of, under whatever adversity.

Sri Lanka took delivery of SLNS Gajabahu, formerly of the United States Coast Guard, in June 2019, during the tail end of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency, a time of political turmoil and uncertainty. The Vietnam War era vessel is one of the largest vessels, acquired by the Navy since Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in May 2009. Sri Lanka paid for the upgrading of USCG Sherman, about 50 years old (the Vietnam war ended in 1975 with the last Americans fleeing Saigon, in helicopters, with their local dependents), along with the required spares and training for the Lankan crew.

Against the backdrop of controversy over the Chinese research and survey vessel Yuan Wang 5 docking at the Hambantota port, leased to China, it would be pertinent to discuss the transferring of vessels, and other equipment, as well as supply of fuel by the Quad grouping, comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan. In spite of China, and international shipping sites, recognizing the Yuan Wang 5 as a research and survey vessel, the Indian media referred to it as a dual-use spy ship.

The Chinese vessel, which was originally scheduled to reach Hambantota port, on August 11, and leave on August 17, finally docked therein on Tuesday (16). The Chinese Embassy invited former Public Security Minister and retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera to visit the vessel. The invitation was extended in the wake of lawmaker Weerasekera single handedly defending the right of the Chinese vessel to visit Sri Lanka, like vessels of other countries’ navies, at the government parliamentary group meeting, on August 08, to ensure the scheduled visit, while the other government MPs had kept mum.

Ambassador Julie Chung’s predecessor Alaina Teplitz, in a special message issued in 2019, to mark the 243rd Independence Day of the US, addressed several contentious issues, including the alleged setting up of an American base here, as well as transferring of the US vessel to Sri Lanka. Ambassador Teplitz is on record as having said: The sea lanes that pass beside Sri Lanka are important for many nations, which is why the United States is helping Sri Lanka’s capacity to protect its coast and waters. In June, I joined President Sirisena at the commissioning of SLNS Gajabahu, the Sri Lankan Navy’s largest vessel. A gift from the American people, the former US Coast Guard Cutter represents the United States’ commitment to strengthening Sri Lanka’s ability to protect its security and prosperity….Just like the gift of the USCG Cutter, our military cooperation is open and mutually beneficial. Every joint exercise, training in disaster response, is done at the invitation of our Sri Lankan hosts. The United States has no intention of building a base here. Instead, we are building relationships that help keep both our countries safe”.

In addition to the US vessel, Sri Lanka took delivery of two new advanced OPVs, namely SLNS Sayurala and SLNS Sindurala, built in India. Advanced OPVs were built at the Goa shipyard in terms of an agreement signed in Feb 2014. India built them at a cost of USD 66 mn and were commissioned in Aug 2017 and April 2018, respectively. Sri Lanka paid for them.

In late Oct 2021, Sri Lanka took delivery of another US Coast Guard Cutter Douglas Munro, the third such American vessel.

The first was USCG Courageous (SLNS Samudura P 621) acquired during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency, in early 2005. SLNS Samudura took part in the hunt for LTTE arms smuggling vessels (floating arsenals) in the high seas.

In July 2019, Sri Lanka also took delivery of the ‘Jangwei’ class missile frigate, previously called the ‘Tongling’ in the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) and served until 2015.

Controversial H’tota port visit

The controversial decision to suddenly rescind permission, granted on July 12 for the Chinese ship visit, due to lobbying by India and the US, caused turmoil in China-Sri Lanka relations. China questioned the very basis of Sri Lanka’s decision, at the behest of New Delhi. China rightfully asserted that the development was quite unacceptable and a hindrance to bilateral relations. The government group meeting, held at the Presidential Secretariat on August 08 evening ,revealed the failure on the part of the new administration to address the issue at hand, properly. One-time Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera didn’t mince his words when he strongly urged the government to go ahead with the already approved visit. The meeting, chaired by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, was attended by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP.

The former Navy Chief of Staff challenged the very basis of cancelling the ship visit as a result of pressure exerted by India. Weerasekera didn’t receive any support from his colleagues. The Colombo district lawmaker was quite clear that Sri Lanka’s relations with the West and India shouldn’t be at the expense of all-weather friend China. Weerasekera reminded the gathering that Sri Lanka, over the years, conducted military exercises with the US, and India as well. However, the most pertinent question that had been raised by the naval veteran was the cancellation of approval given by the previous administration.

Sri Lankan ports, including Hambantota, receive warships from major powers. In spite of Hambantota port being leased to China, the port received warships, even from the US. Destroyer USS Spruance and large transport vessel USNS Millinocket had been at the Hambantota port at the time of the April 2019 Easter Sunday massacre. The 7th Fleet vessels were here for Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) exercise. The attacks compelled the US to cancel the planned exercise. According to US Navy statement, issued ahead of the suicide blasts, during CARAT’s Sri Lanka phase, the Navy and Marine Corps planned to work with Sri Lankan armed forces at sea, to test communication, coordinate and respond to scenarios, at sea, to include maritime patrol operations, maneuvering exercises, surface gunnery drills, visit, board, search and seizure drills, vertical replenishments operations, flight operations and search and rescue swimmer exercises.

There had never been opposition to US and Indian warships’ visit to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka even received Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, at the Colombo port, during the yahapalana administration. The visit, undertaken in late January 2019, marked a higher status in Indo-Lanka relations. INS Vikramaditya, one of the two aircraft carriers operated by the Indian Navy, was accompanied by missile destroyer INS Mysore.

In August 2017, President Maithripala Sirisena renewed the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) with the US that paved the way for unhindered access here to US forces. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration first signed the ACSA, in March 2007, that facilitated specific US intelligence on LTTE arms smuggling ships on the high seas. The US-Sri Lanka relationship cannot be examined without taking into consideration the solid US-India partnership meant to counter China. Obviously, vis- a-vis Sri Lanka, Indian and the US stands appear to be the same. Both countries are deeply resentful of China securing the Hambantota port for commercial purposes, on a 99-year-lease, in 2017.

Contrary to concerns expressed by various interested parties, even commercial vessels cannot be berthed at the Hambantota port, without the approval of the Harbour Master of SLPA and the Sri Lanka Navy. In addition, a naval vessel cannot be berthed at the Hambantota port, without the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).

In fact, two Indian navy vessels visited the Hambantota port for replenishments, in March this year. Naval vessels from Japan, Indonesia, Russia and the USA have called at the port of Hambantota. But, the recent Chinese ship visit has caused such an uproar by the unfair intervention of India, egged on by the US to block it, that the public may tend to think that navies of other countries are not allowed to visit Hambantota.

Indo-Lanka relations

Speaking on the occasion, High Commissioner Gopal Baglay emphasized
that induction of the aircraft would help in creating a peaceful environment for progress and prosperity of the people of India and Sri
Lanka. Gifting of Dornier aircraft underscored the cooperation
between the two maritime neighbours in the defence and security
spheres, Baglay declared, adding such cooperation is envisaged to add further capability and capacity to Sri Lanka and is in line with the
vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)

In keeping with India’s much-touted ‘Neighbourhood First Policy,’ New Delhi has provided critical financial and material support in the wake of the economic fallout. Although the Covid-19, and the war in Ukraine, contributed to the crisis, Sri Lanka must accept responsibility for her plight caused by years of financial mismanagement, waste, corruption and irregularities coupled with the failure of our intelligence to prevent outsiders from exacerbating matters here, like how the Galle Face protests were well financed from outside our shores and how it was allowed to be projected as a non-partisan and non-violent indigenous movement. All we can say is that all the masterminds there were very good paid actors.

Amidst controversy over the Chinese ship visit, President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday (15) accepted a maritime surveillance Dornier aircraft from India. Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral S. N. Ghormade, handed over the aircraft. Interestingly, Sri Lanka received the Dornier from the inventory of the Indian Navy while the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is in the process of building two Dornier aircraft for Sri Lanka. Once India delivered them, the aircraft Sri Lanka took delivery on Monday would be returned.

There had never been a previous instance of China and India publicly commenting on a situation involving their assets visiting Sri Lanka. India has rejected Chinese accusations that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the visit by Yuan Wang 5 to the Hambantota port. India declared that it would take decisions based on its security concerns.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi (former Indian Deputy High Commissioner) is on record as having said that Sri Lanka, as a sovereign country, made its own independent decisions and noted that India would make its judgment on its security concerns, based on the prevailing situation in the 1region.

Sri Lanka must be mindful of India’s security concerns but that shouldn’t be at the expense of her relations with China. Former General Secretary of the Communist Party D.E.W. Gunasekera told the writer that there had never been a similar interference by a third party in Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations with any country.

Wikileaks, in the past, disclosed a range of classified diplomatic cables pertaining to Sri Lanka. One quite interesting cable, that originated from the US mission, in New Delhi, dealt with India’s concerns over the planned Chinese building of an international port at Hambantota. The project got underway in January 2008 as the military was clearly gaining the upper hand as it battled the LTTE on the Vanni front.

Let me reproduce the relevant section of the US diplomatic cable that dealt with the April 26, 2007, meeting a New Delhi-based US diplomat had with the then Joint Secretary, at the External Affairs Ministry Mohan Kumar. Having functioned as the Desk Officer in charge of the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (1990-1992), Kumar received the appointment as Deputy High Commissioner, in Colombo, in late 2001. At the time Kumar had taken up the Hambantota port issue, with the US, as revealed in the Wikileaks cable, he had been head of the division that handled relations with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Kumar has discussed the Indian Navy stepping up patrols in the waters, between India and Sri Lanka, while expressing concern over the Chinese role in the Hambantota port project. Kumar has also bitterly complained about Chinese taking advantage of the situation in Burma, at the expense of India, and warned that the US pressure on New Delhi to take up democracy and human rights issues with the Burmese military leadership facilitated the Chinese project there. The US diplomat quoted Kumar as having told him “We’re getting screwed on gas”.

“The situation in Sri Lanka is bad, really bad – beyond bleak” in Kumar’s judgment. Characterizing the government and the LTTE as two sets of people with scant regard for the international community,

Kumar was skeptical that political progress could be achieved anytime soon. He confirmed reports that the Indian Navy has stepped up patrols in the Palk Strait, and said that India and Sri Lanka are doing coordinated patrolling to prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Tamil Nadu coast. Kumar said it would be helpful to get the American assessment of the port being built in Hambantota, which he estimated China was willing to spend $500 million to help develop. He noted that China has increased its influence with President Rajapaksa, opinioning that Rajapaksa had a ‘soft spot’ for China, following his visit to Beijing on March 9″.

India worked overtime to thwart Chinese projects here. Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa once alleged that Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval asked him to cancel the USD 1.4 bn Chinese flagship project, the Colombo Port City. Declaring that demand shouldn’t have been made, Gotabaya Rajapaksa also quoted Doval as having called for the taking over of the highly successful Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). CMPH holds 85% of the partnership whilst the balance 15% is held by SLPA.

Rajapaksa further quoted Doval as having told him that India wanted all Chinese-funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port. Rajapaksa quoted Doval as having said: Sri Lanka is a small country; you don’t need such development projects.

The Quad has dealt with Sri Lanka in a systematic way. Australia donated two large patrol vessels years ago and recently has been providing fuel for both the Navy and the Air Force as part of the overall support to ensure ongoing operations meant to thwart would-be asylum seekers. In spite of a change of governments, Australia has maintained strong links with Sri Lanka to derail would-be asylum seekers’ plans to smuggle themselves there in multi-day fishing craft, despite so many such odysseys being thwarted.

The other Quad member Japan entered into a comprehensive partnership with Sri Lanka in Oct 2015. The then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the agreement on behalf of Sri Lanka whereas the late Shinzo Abe endorsed it for Japan. Japanese warships frequently visit Sri Lanka. Consequent to the signing of the comprehensive partnership agreement, the Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera even visited the Hambantota port.

Sri Lanka will have to deal carefully with Quad as well as China. The unprecedented economic crisis has weakened the country and exposed it to external interventions, in different forms. The failure on the part of those political parties, represented in Parliament, to reach a consensus on a far reaching political arrangement to restore public confidence as well as secure international backing for recovery efforts, might be all part of the overall plot by the West to destabilize us for being friendly with China.

As for New Delhi she must remind herself that going by history China never had any evil intentions against her unlike the West that plundered and enslaved much of the world, including India.

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