South Asia and Beyond

Left ‘At Sea’, China Fumes As Sri Lanka Buys Time In Election Year

 Left ‘At Sea’, China Fumes As Sri Lanka Buys Time In Election Year

NEW DELHI: Sri Lanka’s recent decision to enact a year-long moratorium on visits in its waters by foreign marine scientific research (MSR) vessels should give it some breathing space in the context of geopolitical rivalries and diplomatic pressures. Multiple elections are also on the horizon.

However, Sri Lanka needs to formulate a robust strategy to deal with MSR visit requests which will increase in the coming years as tensions involving India, China and the United States will likely continue to complicate the situations for it and other littoral states in the IOR, says an editorial in The Morning. These countries have exerted significant diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka regarding the high frequency of Chinese MSR visits, the editorial noted.

It underscored that Sri Lankan policymakers need to fully grasp that China has long-term designs for the IOR, and the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean will only grow in the coming years. China, seems to be borrowing a page from the British Empire, the U.S. and the Soviet “Cold War” period playbooks, and has begun “patrolling” and seeking basing options for the PLA Navy to reduce its supply chain vulnerabilities.

“While China is now pushing hard to expand its maritime science boundaries and build expertise, the kind of joint research it has collaboratively carried out thus far with Sri Lankan institutions are yet to deliver significant scientific results which have real world implications. Further, China’s track record of playing by the international rule book when it comes to maritime matters is problematic. China’s reaction to international law and verdicts about its claim to disputed maritime territories in the South China Sea paints a poor picture,” the edit piece said.

In December last year, China referred to the IOR as the “China-Indian Ocean Region” (CIOR), at a conference in Yunnan Province. Several years ago, the U.S. ‘reenvisaged’ the Indian Ocean as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ to suit its strategic aims. Such moves reveal how it views the world, where a rising China wants to become a “superpower”. Such re-envisioning of the IOR along with projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will see China shift focus towards the Indian Ocean in the coming years.

Already, several Chinese MSRs have been flagged by some Southeast Asian countries for operating with their Automatic Ship Identification (AIS) tracking systems shut off, in what is termed as “going dark”, deifying international law. Further, several such vessels have been accused of deploying autonomous undersea and surface craft to collect scientific data in coastal waters and in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Southeast Asian countries, which also has military applications. Of course China never seeks permission for such activities from any of these countries.

Sri Lanka needs to move swiftly to formulate well-thought-out foreign policy tools and techniques to deal with what could be an escalation of the Chinese inroads to the IOR, the editorial says.

Meanwhile, China is unhappy with the moratorium imposed by Sri Lanka as it means Xiang Yang Hong 3, which originally planned to carry out deep water exploration in the southern Indian Ocean from January 5 until late May, won’t be allowed into Lankan waters.

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“The latest move indicates the mounting pressure that India is exerting on its neighbour as China-India ties have dropped to a low point. It has forced Sri Lanka, a country that has long insisted on an independent foreign policy, to suffer in an awkward position between two major powers,” Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times.

That’s quite rich coming from a country that uses military coercion to usurp territory from smaller littoral states in the South China Sea.

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