India-SL should build framework to discuss maritime concerns – HC Moragoda

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Amidst signs of New Delhi’s disappointment over Colombo’s decision to allow a Chinese tracking vessel to dock in Hambantota, Sri Lanka’s envoy in India called for building a new “framework” on how to deal with such maritime security concerns in the future.

Speaking to The Hindu days after the Chinese satellite and missile tracking ship, the Yuan Wang 5 had departed from the Sri Lankan port after “refuelling and replenishing supplies,” High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda said that Colombo had kept the Modi government briefed at the “highest levels” through the controversy.

In a possible sign of the strain in ties over the issue, the Ministry of External Affairs had issued a rare “travel guidance” on Thursday cautioning Indian tourists about visiting Sri Lanka, which is in the middle of a deep economic crisis. Without commenting on the MEA advisory, Moragoda said it was important to look to the future of ties, particularly in terms of India-Sri Lanka cooperation in the economic and strategic sphere. Apart from economic assistance of $3.8 billion, including credit lines from India, New Delhi and Colombo are discussing more trade ties, a power-sharing grid, and infrastructure projects in renewable energy and oil storage. India has also supported Sri Lanka in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout.

“There is no question that the docking of the ship was an issue between us. The question is how to build a framework for such problems in order to avoid them in the future, and not to allow this kind of issue to lead to a trust deficit,” Moragoda said, adding that despite “ups and downs”, Sri Lanka would like to “build an equilibrium in the relationship, where there are no surprises”.

In an unusually public move, the Modi government had last month conveyed its concerns over the docking of the ship, believed to be a satellite research and surveillance vessel. While the Sri Lankan government had asked China to defer the ship’s plans entirely after India’s objections, the Chinese government had only agreed to delay its arrival in Hambantota by a few days, and eventually the Yuan Wang 5 docked at the port from 16 – 22 August.

According to Moragoda, the permissions for the docking had been granted to China amidst a period of political turmoil in Colombo, when President Ranil Wickremesinghe took charge after the ouster of previous President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as well as the economic crisis, leading to “not enough attention” being given to the case. According to official data, the visit of the ship had also followed after at least 10 research vessels of a different class had docked in Colombo between 2019-2022, without raising any concerns in Delhi.

 “In this particular case, there could have been a level of confusion in Colombo when it came to differentiating between the classes of vessels and technologies involved. Unfortunately, once the approvals were given, it was hard to take them back,” Mr. Moragoda said, adding that Sri Lanka was hoping to focus on strengthening lines of communication, as well as high-level exchanges, and people-to-people ties. According to sources, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Wickremesinghe are expected to travel to Tokyo to attend former Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state funeral.

On a visit to Gujarat last week, Sri Lankan Tourism Minister Harin Fernando had also pitched for more Indian tourists, saying that he hoped that at least 10 lakh international tourists, mostly Indians, would visit this year. However, striking a cautionary note on Thursday, the MEA’s spokesperson said encouraged Indians to exercise all care and caution while in Sri Lanka, and “examine all relevant factors, including currency convertibility and the fuel situation before undertaking any essential travel to Sri Lanka”.