Reacting strongly to Sri Lanka’s request to delay the visit of a tracking vessel that was due to arrive on August 11 and had aroused India’s concerns, China on Monday described India’s opposition to the visit as “unjustified” and “morally irresponsible”, and “urged” New Delhi to “not disturb normal exchanges” between the two countries.
The Yuan Wang 5 tracking and survey vessel had last month been given clearance by Sri Lanka to stop in the port of Hambantota from August 11 to 17 to carry out replenishment.
The visit of a space and satellite tracking vessel for close to a week had, however, aroused concerns in New Delhi, and last week, Sri Lanka’s government conveyed to China that it wanted the visit deferred “until further consultations” were made. Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong sought a meeting with President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Saturday, after receiving the note verbale from the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry requesting a delay in the visit.
Diplomatic clearance given: Sri Lanka
In a statement late on Monday, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the request, saying that on July 12 it had given “diplomatic clearance” for the Chinese vessel to make a port call. “Subsequently in light of the need for further consultations, the Ministry has communicated to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Colombo to defer the visit of the said vessel to the Hambantota port,” the Ministry said, in its first official statement on the controversial vessel visit, without commenting on the outcome of its request.
In a strongly worded response at a press briefing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “I have noted relevant reports and would like to stress two points. First, Sri Lanka is a transportation hub in the Indian Ocean. Scientific research vessels from various countries including China have made port calls in Sri Lanka for replenishment. China always exercises freedom of the high seas in accordance with law and fully respects coastal countries’ jurisdiction over scientific research activities in waters under their jurisdiction. Second, Sri Lanka is a sovereign country. It has the right to develop relations with other countries based on its development interests. To have normal cooperation is the independent choice made by our two countries. It serves the shared interests of both sides and does not target any third party.”
Without directly referring to India, he added that it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called ‘security concerns’ to pressure Sri Lanka.”
Mr. Wang even appeared to accuse India of looking to “exploit” Sri Lanka in remarks published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on its website late on Monday. “As Sri Lanka grapples with economic and political difficulties, to grossly interfere in Sri Lanka’s normal exchange and cooperation with other countries is to exploit its vulnerability, which is morally irresponsible and against the basic norms governing international relations,” he said. “We urge the relevant parties to see China’s marine scientific research activities in a rational light and stop disrupting normal exchange and cooperation between China and Sri Lanka.”
The ship’s visit is another prominent example of Indian and Chinese interests rubbing up against each other in Sri Lanka. Last year, a Chinese firm similarly hit out at what it called “interference” by a “third party” after India had raised concerns about the awarding of a renewable energy project to a company from China, for installing energy systems in three islands off Jaffna Peninsula, 50 km away from Tamil Nadu.
Amid the latest dispute over the visit of the ship, China and Sri Lanka have been continuing long negotiations on possible financial assistance. Colombo has been seeking a $4 billion package from Beijing, which is, however, yet to take a call. India has stepped in with over $3.5 billion to assist Sri Lanka during the current crisis, while China in May announced a $74 million grant. Beijing hasn’t yet responded to the requests for more assistance.
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry in its statement sought to downplay the row, stressing that Sri Lanka “reaffirms the enduring friendship and excellent relations between Sri Lanka and China which remain on a solid foundation”, a message reiterated recently by the two Foreign Ministers Ali Sabry and Wang Yi at a bilateral meeting in Cambodia on August 4.
“At this first meeting between the two Foreign Ministers, Minister Sabry referred to Sri Lanka’s firm commitment to the one-China policy which has been a consistent principle in the country’s foreign policy,” the Ministry said, days after President Wickremesinghe emphasised that position.