Sino-India proxy war in Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka’s policy of neutrality in regional and international power games is being increasingly tested, as top Chinese and Indian diplomats stationed in Colombo decided to engage in a war of words over some issues, much to the anxiety of Sri Lanka.

The verbal assaults started initially over statements on issues concerning Sino-Indian border issues and US Congress Speaker’s visit to Taiwan and Beijing’s show of military strength to show its displeasure. However, last month it shifted to issues closer home when Indian and Chinese diplomats in Colombo thought it fit to attack each other’s positions on the visit of Chinese satellite-tracking vessel Yuan Wang 5 to the Hambantota Port from 16 to 22 August.

When Sri Lanka urged the Chinese vessel to defer its visit which was scheduled for 11 August, Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong issued a media statement accusing India and the United States of interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. “Some countries ‘far or near’ are bullying Sri Lanka,” the Ambassador said and added that Sri Lanka overcame “aggression from its northern neighbour 17 times.” Qi Zhenhong also referred to the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and connected it with the entry of the Chinese satellite-tracking vessel to the Southern Sri Lankan port. The Envoy added that China and Sri Lanka were jointly safeguarding each other’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.

The Indian High Commission in Colombo reacted sharply to the Chinese Ambassador’s remarks, describing them as violations of basic diplomatic etiquette. In a strongly-worded Twitter message, the Indian High Commission said it had noted the remarks of the Chinese Ambassador. “His violation of basic diplomatic etiquette may be a personal trait or reflecting a larger national attitude,” the Indian mission said. “His view of Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves. India, we assure him, is very different. His imputing a geopolitical context to the visit of a purported scientific research vessel is a giveaway,” it said.

Sri Lanka, for obvious reasons decided to ignore the verbal battle of the giants, but expressed concern informally about their indifference and disregard to Colombo’s oft-repeated foreign policy of neutrality and assurance that no Sri Lankan soil will be allowed to be used for hostile acts on another country. Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stressed in his first interview to a foreign news service that that Sri Lanka’s biggest asset is its strategic location and the prime interest of the Government is to keep the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace for free commercial navigation. “Sri Lanka has no interest whatsoever to get involved in regional or international power games. Sri Lanka treats every nation as a friend, while zealously guarding the sovereignty and independence of the country,” Gunawardena replied when Tomomi Asano of the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun asked him about the controversy last month.

Since ancient times, the ports in Sri Lanka were popular with commercial vessels of the traders and the country continued to provide facilities to vessels from all corners of the world. Even today, vessels of many countries call on Sri Lankan ports and occasionally there are naval crafts calling on for replenishments, joint military exercises, or on friendly calls. During all these, Sri Lanka strictly maintains the condition that such visits are not directed against the interests of a third country, as Sri Lanka strictly adheres to its policy of neutrality.

Indian foreign affairs analyst Sudha Ramachandran said the opaqueness and debt-driven agendas are now a major challenge, especially for smaller nations. “Recent developments are a caution. Sri Lanka needs support, not unwanted pressure or unnecessary controversies to serve another country’s agenda,” she said and added that Sri Lanka’s Chinese debt is in focus in the context of the island nation’s attempts to restructure its foreign loans to qualify for IMF support.

Indian media commentators, in a scathing attack said the latest diplomatic spat between India and China has shown Chinese intransigence and undue interest in Sri Lankan affairs, an island nation situated far away from the Chinese mainland. “In fact, China should have no business in the affairs of a distant sovereign nation with which China had no historical, people to people, or State to State relations. The way China has shed crocodile tears over Sri Lanka’s alleged loss of sovereignty due to its northern neighbour in the past and getting colonised for centuries, speaks of China’s hidden intent to prevent India from developing a cooperative friendly relationship with the island nation and establish its de-facto control over Sri Lankan State policy,” they claimed.

As the verbal war continued, the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi also entered the fray. “We reject the insinuations in the statement about India. Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own independent decisions,” Spokesman Arindam Bagchi said. He made a veiled reference to recent tension in eastern Ladakh border row with China, saying India would make its judgment on its security concerns based on the prevailing situation in the region, especially in the border areas.

Sri Lanka has no intention whatsoever to get involved in a tussle between India and China or any other regional or international powers. As Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena clarified at the Independence Day message, “We must also keep in mind, the challenges that have arisen nationally and internationally against the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of this country. We are determined to make Sri Lanka a prosperous country, maintaining friendly relations with the nations of the world.”

As Indian delegate Ruchira Kamboj told the United Nations Security Council last month, “Countries must respect each other’s sovereignty.”

By Sugeeswara Senadhira