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Sri Lanka’s inconsistent foreign policy threatens India’s security

by Ajay Kumar Das - 16 April, 2024, 12:00 548 Views 0 Comment

Introduction

In March 2024, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Niluka Kadurugamuwa informed that they will permit offshore research ships for replenishment activities at its ports. This announcement comes in the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s self-declared one-year ban on offshore research vessels to visit its ports. The spokesperson further clarified that this one-year ban on vessels was for research purposes, not for ‘replenishment purposes’. This development comes immediately after the Chinese embassy protested against the Sri Lankan government’s decision to allow a German research vessel to replenish and ban the previous visit of a Chinese research vessel ‘Xiang Yang Hong 3’ in February 2024.[i] The above decision by the Sri Lankan leaders shows their unstable foreign policy with respect to their neighbour. Allowing foreign vessels to visit Sri Lankan ports will allow Chinese research vessels a free pass which can threaten Indian national security.

Previous Chinese vessel activities

India has always been wary of Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), especially with their growing influence in Sri Lanka. The Chinese made various attempts to send its research vessels cum ‘spy ships’ near to India’s vicinity in the past. In August 2022, Chinese vessel ‘Yuan Wang 5’ was granted permission to dock at the Hambantota port, which has already been leased to China. This vessel is a dual-use ship with capabilities to track the trajectory of ballistic missiles, monitor satellite launches and gather electronic intelligence.[ii] In the same month, the Chinese navy vessel ‘Hai Yang 24’, having surveillance capabilities arrived at a two-day formal visit at Colombo port.[iii] In October 2023, another vessel ‘Shi Yan 6’ also docked at the Hambantota port despite India protesting to Sri Lanka against such visits. This ship was also equipped with sensors to map the ocean bed in the IOR to collect valuable information critical for anti-submarine warfare.[iv] After this, both India and the US raised their concerns against Chinese activities in the IOR and in Sri Lanka.[v] US is concerned that such spying activities may be a Chinese tactic to counter the AUKUS submarine capabilities in future. As both India and the US are large aid donors to Sri Lanka and have provided financial assistance to Sri Lanka after its economic collapse in 2022, Sri Lanka decided to impose a one-year moratorium on the visit of research vessels which upset China.[vi]

Sri Lanka unable to resist Chinese pressure

Sri Lanka faced an economic crisis in 2022. This was caused by the heavy foreign debt. Sri Lanka was a member of the BRI project of China where it got massive assistance in infrastructure development from China. Those projects soon became white elephants and served little practical purpose. The total foreign debts increased to 101 percent of the GDP which stood at around 51 billion USD out of which China owns around 10 percent. The island nation was unable to pay back the loans and the arrival of covid-19 pandemic worsened the tourism industry and Sri Lanka’s economy went into default.[vii] Now to recover from this crisis, Sri Lanka approached the IMF with the help of India and US to seek 2.9 billion USD in bailout package after giving assurance to IMF that China will execute debt restructuring on its part along with India and Japan, its other large donors.[viii] Although, Sri Lanka has successfully received two tranches of bailout packages, it is still under pressure as China is pressurizing Sri Lanka to pursue its geopolitical interests in the region in return for debt forgiveness. Recently Sri Lanka’s president has also said that he is seeking to defer loan repayments to its creditors till the year 2028.[ix] Its highly possible that China is making use of this vulnerability and may be trying to put pressure to allow its research vessels to dock in Sri Lanka.

Impact on India

The change in Sri Lanka’s policy to allow foreign vessels for replenishment at its ports poses a major challenge to India’s security. Although Sri Lanka says that such visits are for replenishment purposes, there is really no guarantee that such vessels, especially from China will attempt to conduct research in the garb of replenishment. Till now Sri Lanka hasn’t yet drafted any Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for handling foreign research vessels, which they claimed to have drafted in September 2023, after an Indian protest over the visit of ‘Shi Yan 6’. Also, Sri Lankan government officials have themselves admitted that “Sri Lanka does not have the capacity and prior experience in handling research vessels and to have an idea about the exact research they are doing”.[x] Therefore, there is a high possibility that China will definitely utilize this change in Sri Lankan policy to send its research vessels and conduct research or espionage activities near India’s vicinity. Apart from this, there is also a geopolitical aspect where China would be still keen to revive its ‘String of Pearls’ theory to encircle India for possible naval deployment.[xi] There are already reports that China would like to establish a radar base on Dondra Bay, in Sri Lanka’s southernmost tip, to keep a close watch on Indian navy as well as US assets in Diego Garcia. Although the Sri Lankan defence ministry refuted this, they can’t be trusted because of their inconsistent foreign policy. The military ties between Sri Lanka and China have also deepened and their policy can change at the request of the Chinese in future.[xii]

Way ahead for India

All the above scenarios require an effective strategy from Indian policymakers to safeguard India’s interests. This can be done using diplomatic, economic and military options. On the diplomatic front, India should nudge the Sri Lankan leadership to accelerate and complete its pending SOP with regard to handling foreign research vessels, subject to which no foreign vessels should be permitted to dock near Sri Lankan ports even for replenishments. Until Sri Lanka develops the capacity to monitor what exact research any foreign vessel is undertaking, it should avoid giving permission to vessels for port visits. India should also seek assistance from the US in this regard. On the economic front, since India and Japan are major creditors to the Sri Lankan economy, both these nations should request Sri Lanka to limit their debt exposure to China and instead opt for more transparent, fair and logical assistance through their end so as not to repeat the economic crisis which Sri Lanka underwent in 2022. Sri Lanka also has a looming human rights issue which is under monitoring by the US and Sri Lanka would need some space there also. Finally, in the military domain, India should deploy more anti-espionage and counter intelligence assets, tools and tactics to deter Chinese presence in the IOR.

Conclusion

Small powers like Sri Lanka often have a strategy of ‘Bandwagoning’ where they tie themselves to great powers for their self-interests. However, Sri Lanka is unable to remain consistent in its foreign policy. In international relations, there are no permanent allies or enemies, but just permanent interests. Therefore, in this regard, India should extend the ‘neighbourhood first policy’ to those nations which have an ‘India first policy’.

[i] (Aneez 2024)

[ii] (Pandit 2022)

[iii] (NA 2023)

[iv] (Service 2023)

[v] (NA, After India, US flags concern over Chinese spy ship 2023)

[vi] (Francis 2024)

[vii] (Dasgupta 2022)

[viii] (Francis, Sri Lanka leader says IMF deal imminent after China’s pledge 2023)

[ix] (Francis, Sri Lankan president says he is seeking to defer loan payments until 2028 amid economic crisis 2024)

[x] (Aneez, Sri Lanka cabinet to discuss on handling foreign research vessels: sources 2024)

[xi] (Moorthy 2024)

[xii] (NA, Sri Lanka denies rumours of a potential Chinese base on its soil – but receives more military equipment 2024)

Ajay Kumar Das
Author is currently pursuing M.A in International Relations, Security & Strategy (MA-IRSS) at Jindal School of International Affairs, Haryana, India. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from SRM University, Chennai. He is an Independent Researcher and Analyst in areas of International Affairs, National Security, Air-Power Studies and Geopolitics. He writes for various Think-Tanks, Forums, Institutes and has authored book chapters on ‘Human Security challenges in Democracies and Autocracies’ and ‘Role of Movies as a Soft-Power in Global Politics’
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