There is a famous saying that when two bulls fight, the smaller bull is crushed. Sri Lanka is going through similar pains in the battle of two regional rivals like China and India. Controversy continues over Sri Lanka's conflicting decisions like first asking the Chinese vessel to suspend her voyage and then allowing her to stay at the port. All this has happened at a time when Sri Lanka is facing severe economic crisis and change of power.
Colombo has become a diplomatic battleground between the conflict between the Indian High Commission and the Chinese Embassy. The unsolicited sympathy of both the countries is with Sri Lanka. Referring to their close ties with Sri Lanka, both spoke of how they were helping it. The dispute was not over Sri Lanka's crisis or its help, but over the five-day stay of a Chinese vessel at a Sri Lankan port for refueling.
India objected to the presence of a Chinese vessel at the Sri Lankan port as it doubts its intentions. China has insisted that the Yuan Wang-5 is a research and survey ship, but India says it is a "spy ship" with missile detection capability. The ship has now sailed away from the island nation, but it has left such a swirl of controversy in the Indian Ocean that other small countries as far and near as the Seychelles and Mauritius, on the Maldives and East African coasts, cannot ignore it.
India had first objected to the halt of the Chinese ship in Hambantota. Unable to categorically refuse, Colombo diplomatically urged Beijing to suspend the visit, but when China pressured, it suddenly made a U-turn to allow it. India was furious. China has said that India is creating a lot of controversy over the visit of the research ship and has created unnecessary "pressure" on Sri Lanka, while Sri Lanka deserves sympathy and support.
India rejected China's allegation that New Delhi exerted pressure on Colombo and insisted that Sri Lanka "needs support, not unwanted pressure". The Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka said that we have taken cognizance of the remarks of the Chinese Ambassador. Violation of basic etiquette is their individual trait or it reflects a broader national attitude. Amid signs of New Delhi's dismay over Colombo's decision to allow a Chinese ship, Sri Lanka's envoy to India Milinda Moragoda has urged for a new 'framework' to deal with such maritime security concerns in future.
The question is who will prepare it and who will set the criteria for it. India fears that a Chinese 'spy ship' will be used to locate India's maritime installations in its vast coastline. This is a legitimate concern, which has increased over the past two decades, as Chinese submarines and ships continue to conduct reconnaissance around the island nations of the Indian Ocean. The Hambantota port investment is one of several projects that have increased Sri Lanka's debt burden.
Sri Lanka on Thursday signed a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package to come out of its severe economic crisis. China's massive infrastructure projects have been sharply criticized by the US, Western countries and India for luring poor countries into debt traps. The Hambantota project is a prime example of this, when Sri Lanka had to lease it to China for 99 years after being unable to pay the debt.
India, battling with its regional rival, needs to acknowledge that it has made several lapses in foreign projects. The same thing happened in Myanmar. India, of course, built the Chabahar port of Iran, but later India lost its interest in it, so now China is developing it. India's loss of interest was partly due to its incompetence, but the main reason was fear of resentment from the US, which views any deal with Iran with hostility.
Thus India is paying an economic price for fulfilling the geopolitical objective of being closer to the US and the Quad. All these important projects have gone to China, which has a lot of money and capacity to complete them. India's warm relations with Sri Lanka are not new. Every time Sri Lanka does not find India in its interests, it turns to China. Forgetting ancient ties and mythology, Sri Lanka looks at India from the point of view of its conflicting national interests.
India helped him fight Sinhalese extremist groups, which was a thankless job. Then India helped the LTTE and other Tamil extremist groups during the ethnic conflict. The majority Sinhalese became the enemy of India, while India shed blood fighting those Tamil groups. It was another thankless job. Not surprisingly, many Sri Lankan presidents in recent years, notably Rajapaksa (Mahinda and Gotabaya), have been anti-India and pro-China. Overall, Sri Lanka is running a balance between India and China.
It is worth noting seriously in this matter that in the new century, China has made itself enormously powerful not only at the regional level, but also at the global level. India can strengthen itself geo-strategicly by forming alliances with the US and allies, but when it comes to geopolitics and geo-economics - India has to compete with countries in the region, be they big or small. Have to have a relationship. If this is going to be the Asian century, then India will have to compete with China unwillingly.