India’s security officials worry that China would use the ship’s visit as a precedent for future deployments by Chinese warships to Sri Lanka.
It is likely that Sri Lanka authorities succumbed to pressure from China, a key developmental partner for Colombo. Sri Lanka’s initial refusal to allow the docking of the Chinese ship had upset Beijing, with Chinese officials criticising Colombo for its “senseless attempts” to prevent what they saw as mere “replenishment” of a research ship. Beijing had urged “relevant parties” (a barely veiled reference to India) to view China’s marine scientific research missions in context and “refrain from interfering with normal and legitimate maritime activities”. There are, it seems, two ways of construing the visit of the YW-5. One is to acknowledge that in an age of openness and transparency, surveillance at sea is a legitimate activity. As some Indian observers have noted, friendly and hostile forces carry out snooping in the Asian littorals regularly, with regional states keeping track of foreign surveillance in their waters. The reality for New Delhi is that China has had Hambantota port for 99 years, and is entitled to use it for non-military activity in a manner it deems fit.
Sri Lanka’s initial refusal to allow the docking of the Chinese ship had upset Beijing, with Chinese officials criticising Colombo for its “senseless attempts” to prevent what they saw as mere “replenishment” of a research ship.
Yet China is always pushing the envelope—both in the Western Pacific and in the Indian Ocean. In the South China Sea, China uses maritime militias to threaten any activity deemed inimical to Chinese sovereign interests. The Chinese policy in the Indian Ocean is gradual and relentless encroachment that expands China’s tactical space and asserts Beijing’s rights and interests in spaces outside its sphere of natural influence. The approach isn’t necessarily a threat to regional powers, but it willy-nilly undermines the latter’s capacity to compete with China. Even if not inherently malevolent, China’s strategy manifests in ways damaging to the interests of other countries. The yardstick for whether China’s activities in Sri Lanka are legitimate or not would be whether Chinese actions are acceptable to Sri Lankan strategic experts. Here, the majority view appears to suggest that China’s deployments are controversial. Beijing’s goal, Sri Lankan experts say is to leverage Lanka’s indebtedness to display Chinese strategic heft. China, they contend, is “putting Hambantota port to dual use, commercial and military,” all in a bid to generate an enabling environment for Chinese strategic activity in the island country.
Beijing’s game plan is to demonstrate to India and the other Bay of Bengal states that Chinese activities are in line with China’s rising global heft.
The visit of the YW-5 poses a larger ethical dilemma for New Delhi: Should it allow seemingly suspicious foreign activity in the littorals, simply because the subject professes to advance a principled cause (scientific research)? Can China be allowed to ride unchecked on the back of a body of international rules that privileges user-state rights, over the security concerns of littoral nations? In essence, India must choose between doing what’s required by law (and propriety), and demanding special rights in its near-seas—especially in circumstances when international law does not fully account for the foreign activity that could imperil India’s national security. It’s a wicked problem with no easy answers, but India must act. Time is of the essence.
The Chinese policy in the Indian Ocean is gradual and relentless encroachment that expands China’s tactical space and asserts Beijing’s rights and interests in spaces outside its sphere of natural influence.
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A former naval officer Abhijit Singh Senior Fellow headsRead More +