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Dragon moves in close to southern India

Any Taiwan-like adventure by China in Sri Lanka would affect the people of the southern states
Last Updated : 12 August 2022, 16:22 IST

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Is India staring at an inching danger of a battlefront emerging down south that has hitherto been flaunted as a 'garden of peace'? It seems so, going by the insistence of Chinese President Xi Jinping that his 'research' ship Yuan Wang 5 will go ahead with its voyage to Hambantota port on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, notwithstanding Colombo's plea seeking its deferment "until further talks are completed". New Delhi had pressured Sri Lanka to halt the spy ship as it seriously threatened India's security.

Informed sources tell me that China has stocked up a huge quantity of fuel at Hambantota months ago in preparation for its spy ship's snooping schedule for over two weeks beginning August 11. "China procured the oil from Iran during November-December last year, without even having to involve Sri Lanka. They merely had to tell Gotabaya (then president), and he nodded approval. The quantity of fuel stored in Hambantota could be enough to serve the needs of entire Sri Lanka for a fortnight, even more," said a source requesting anonymity.

Fitted with hi-tech gadgetry to track satellites and the defence and other sensitive installations within a radius of about 750 km in south India, besides the activities at the missile launch site in Odisha, Yuan Wang 5 can also map the entire seabed in that Indian Ocean region and store the data for probable use against the Indian submarines, should a tragic Indo-China confrontation happen there.

The latest reports from the region say that though the ship did not keep its docking date, August 11, it continued to move towards Sri Lanka, albeit at reduced speed and a brief route diversion. The spy ship was "approximately 600 nautical miles" from the island as of Thursday (August 11) evening, said newsfirst.lk news site from Colombo. Hambantota's port master was fooling himself, and the media, claiming on Thursday that Yuan Wang 5 "cannot enter the port without my permission", and he had not given the green signal; for President Ranil Wickremesinghe during his tenure as the prime minister had signed off Hambantota on a 99-year lease to China (December 2017) because his country could not repay the substantial Chinese loans obtained at high-interest rates and 'attractive kickbacks' for the politicians in Colombo.

Apart from its 'ownership' status, China could force the ship's entry into the Lankan waters by telling Ranil that it had already covered a good part of its nautical distance and that Colombo could ill afford to compensate Beijing for its loss of money and face should he turn back Yuan Wang 5 at this late stage just because Delhi objected. The Chinese foreign ministry had charged India, albeit without naming the country, with interfering with the "normal exchanges" between China and Sri Lanka by flagging 'senseless' and 'unjustified' security concerns.

"It appears that China has decided to demonstrate its mighty muscle and make it clear that a tiny island state like us cannot alter its plans just to please India. We have no option after having stretched out our begging bowl to them (China). Now we are worried about being caught like a little mouse between the dragon and the tiger," said a senior official in Colombo, requesting anonymity. He drew a parallel with what was happening to Taiwan, caught between China and the USA.

What the Sri Lankan official did not mention, however, was the huge threat stalking southern India. Seeing through the anxiety behind the statement of the Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu on Tuesday (August 9) wailing that the post-Pelosi sea-air exercises by the Chinese PLA were "to prepare for the invasion of Taiwan", it is difficult not to be seized by similar concerns relating to Xi's plans for the seas south of India.

Perhaps the most powerful leader in the world today, as he wears three crowns as the President of his country, the commander-in-chief of its military and the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi might have sensed his big chance now to get back at Delhi for its active cohabitation with the Americans in Quad whose avowed agenda is to contain the Chinese expansionism. Should India step up its shrill cry over Yuan Wang 5 snooping, Xi may hit back by claiming absolute innocence on the spying charge while moving in more ships and ordering air sorties in the region under the pretext that China has the right to save its expensive installations in Sri Lanka and protect its many workers and their families living on the island from any 'Indian misadventure'. All such external aggression could help him when he seeks his third term as the Chairman of the all-powerful Communist Party of China at its Congress slated later this year.

Knowledgeable sources in Delhi say President Wickremesinghe appears to have yielded to Beijing's pressure to let the Yuan Wang 5 schedule stay, even while pretending through the 'formal' statements and appeals from his foreign office to 'defer' the voyage for the time being. The six-time prime minister, currently the country's eighth executive president with all those years of Machiavellian manipulations amid the turbulent Sri Lankan politics and the mandatory international obligations, Wickremesinghe finds himself on a trapeze, upside down. He must balance the prescriptions from Delhi for decent neighbourly conduct with the stiff demands from the distant dragon seeking to strengthen its enrollment of the little island as its satellite state. While swinging precariously between India and China, he must also carry out the diktats of his real masters, the Rajapaksas, operating from behind the curtain.

China has been licking its wounds since being robbed by India of its fancy renewable energy projects in the three islands close to Tamil Nadu in the Palk Strait last year. India had raised concerns that the chosen sites were barely 40 minutes boat ride from the southern coast of Rameswaram, and there was logical suspicion that the 'energy projects' could be an excuse for installing snooping stations targeting India. The Chinese energy company had then issued a statement protesting against Colombo's project cancellation due to "interference by a third party".

Let us read that Chinese outburst on Yuan Wang 5 again—it termed the opposition from the 'third party' as being "morally irresponsible". Stressing "two important points" at his media briefing on Monday (August 8), foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin argued that Sri Lanka, as a transportation hub in the Indian Ocean, has allowed port calls for replenishment to "scientific research vessels from various countries including China". And 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".

Now, all that sounds like the devil quoting the scriptures. How 'morally responsible' was the trip to Jaffna undertaken by Ambassador Qi last December, when he drove with the Lankan military officials right up to the northern coastline, got onto a naval inshore patrol craft for a short ride before hopping into a smaller gunboat to step onto the third shoal among the string of islets forming the Adam's Bridge (Rama Setu), from where Rameswaram could be sighted? He let his drone fly over the Palk Strait to take pictures and asked his Lankan escorts how close India was. And on that three-day trip, he also went to the historic Jaffna Library and insisted on being taken to the India Section therein. "This is a beginning," was his ominous comment to the media at the end of his boat trip; Delhi must have quickly picked up the menace in that boastful Jaffna trip, the first for a Chinese Ambassador in Sri Lanka.

The 'second point' of Beijing's spokesperson was that Sri Lanka, as a sovereign country, has all the right to develop relations with other countries based on its development interests. "It serves the shared interests of both sides and does not target any third party", he has said. "It is completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called 'security concerns' to pressure Sri Lanka".

The spokesperson is right; he is right, he is right. But did he say, 'development interests', hmm? Well, the whole world knows the Chinese concerns for development in the Third World countries, particularly ruled by unscrupulous and corrupt politicians unchallenged by domestic socio-political institutions—as witnessed in Sri Lanka until the Galle Face revolt. Beijing found such places ideal terrain for drowning in its debt trap.

Even if we choose to be the ostrich pretending Yuan Wang 5 will be just another passing cloud on a bright blue sky, and there is no plague on board to threaten peace in the region, it would be foolish for India not to prepare for the 'worst'. And the preparations must include building ground support among the people of Sri Lanka and India, particularly those in south India.

New Delhi's quick response to the Lankan economic crisis has won considerable support among the majority Sinhala people, who have been hitherto suspicious about India helping the Tamil Tigers' separatism on the island. The Indian Mission in Colombo must devise out-of-the-box measures to multiply on this newfound support base on the island, even while addressing the challenge of the perennial socio-political divisions among the Tamils in the north-east, where the self-centred leadership is even more ductile to 'external' influences, and corruption.

(R Bhagwan Singh is a senior journalist based in Chennai, writing on Sri Lanka since the 1980s)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 12 August 2022, 16:16 IST

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