High Noon at Hambantota as controversial ship sails to muddy Lankan waters Lanka is caught badly between the devil and the deep blue sea as the Indo-Sino tussle over the Indian Ocean brews to a full-blown storm, threatening to wreak havoc on the nation’s plans for early economic recovery. At the epicentre of the crisis [...]


Lanka caught in middle of Indo-Sino tug of war


High Noon at Hambantota as controversial ship sails to muddy Lankan waters

Lanka is caught badly between the devil and the deep blue sea as the Indo-Sino tussle over the Indian Ocean brews to a full-blown storm, threatening to wreak havoc on the nation’s plans for early economic recovery.

At the epicentre of the crisis is a Chinese vessel on course to dock at Hambantota Port on August 11, much to the ire of the Indian Government. Lanka has been inexorably plunged in the middle of this unwanted tug of war between two regional giants, compelled to walk the tightrope without safety net, staging a delicate balancing act between two highly prized friendships.

CHINA’S TROJAN SEAHORSE: The Yuan Wang research ship, used by the Chinese military for satellite and intercontinental ballistic missile tracking, scheduled to dock at Hambantota Port on Thursday, despite India’s strong protests

It is the typical tale of the man, who had fallen from the tree, being gored by the proverbial bull.

On one side is India, Lanka’s closest neighbour and true benefactor by whose grace the nation has lived and still survives on her generous flow of essentials. While other countries have chipped in with the odd basket of humanitarian goodies, without India’s steady credit lines granted since March, now nearing USD 5 billion, we would have been left bereft of the bare necessities of modern life; found tottering on the brink of famine, stranded on the economic highway without fuel.

As the President said in his first State of the Nation address in Parliament on Wednesday, Narendra Modi’s India ‘has given us a breath of life’.  Beside India’s prolonged kiss of life to resuscitate moribund Lanka, she has also granted billions of dollars in aid, placing her in the top bracket of the nation’s creditors, if not the topmost.

She has become our invaluable partner without whose indispensable cooperation we will not be able to restructure our debt to reach sustainability levels as required by the IMF to receive their promised bailout to rebuild the bankrupt nation from scratch.

On the other side of the tug-of-war rope is China. And the same considerations apply.  China is also in the same bracket as India as our topmost lender. Chinese loans, given freely during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term, financed and fed the ex-President’s gluttony for grandiose projects which have now turned into white elephants. While India has not foreclosed on any of her outstanding loans and demanded immediate payback, China has shown no such scruple.

When Ranil’s Yahapalana regime was in a tight corner and floundered in meeting the Hambantota Chinese debt, China demanded her pound of flesh without any qualms; and acquired the strategic Hambantota port on a 99-year lease in lieu of debt instead. While India has granted grace, China has worn the Shylock face.

Each has its own vested interest in Lanka. For India, Lanka is an inescapable geographical presence, an island that can be transformed into a veritable enemy aircraft carrier anchored on her doorstep, within strike range. It is in her national interest to ensure that Lanka does not fall into the wrong hands. Especially that of China, her long-time implacable foe.

For China, the island is the coveted pearl in the Indian sea, the strategic rear door to India, a tropical destination in her ancient Silk Route, now revived as One Belt, One Road to increase her sphere of influence in Asia, Africa and Europe. Important as Lanka is to her strategic interests, the inclusion is based on a broader perspective, on a more global vision.

If the investment is a continuous drain on her resources, China will not blink to cut her losses – as she showed these last three months when she granted no further credit lines except to service her own loans – but instead strive to recoup it; and leave Lanka to her woes. For her, Lanka is a far flung dispensable little island, mainly valued for being in the Indian neighbourhood. But for India’s Modi — even as Taiwan is perceived by China’s Xi Jinping as an extension of the mainland — Lanka and India’s ‘destinies are interlocked.’

The Chinese ship, “Yuan Wang”, had sailed from the Jiangyin Port in China on July 13 and is expected to dock at the Hambantota Port on August 11 and remain until the 17. The research ship, reportedly with space and satellite tracking facilities, will officially be here for ‘replenishment.’

India lodged a verbal protest on July 27 but the Lankan Defence Ministry denied it, stating, ‘we have no confirmation of such a vessel calling at the Hambantota port.’

The following day the Chinese sprang into staging a public relations exercise, declaring that China’s massive investments had boosted Lanka’s economic development and that Sino-Lanka cooperation has ‘always been led by Sri Lanka with scientific planning and thorough verification with no strings attached.’ Responding to US criticisms that Chinese ‘unproductive projects and opaque loan deals among the reasons for the country’s bankruptcy’, she counterclaimed that they have ‘boosted Sri Lanka’s economic development, and brought tangible benefits to the Sri Lankan people.”

True. We can certainly see the tangible consequences starkly visible on the roads of Lanka, played out in slow motion at the long lines of petrol and other queues.

On July 29, while the Indian protest over Yuan Wang’s arrival mounted, China extended another sweetener to Lanka when its Ambassador Qi Zhenhong met Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardane and assured him that ‘the necessary support will be provided at the meeting of the IMF Board of Directors’.

After having initially denied any knowledge of its arrival in Lanka, it was only after India’s clear message that it was ‘carefully monitoring the development’ that the Lankan Defence Ministry confirmed on July 30, Yuan Wang’s impending arrival, stating that the ship had sought clearance.

On August 1, despite India having lodged her formal concerns at the ‘highest levels’ over what the Indian media has branded as ’China’s spy ship’, Lanka has so far refused to block entry to the ship.

Simultaneously, China defended her decision and her right to dispatch the Yuan Wang to traverse the Indian Ocean and to dock at the Chinese-built and Chinese leased port of Hambantota to refuel and replenish.

In Beijing, China’s foreign ministry said that China always exercised freedom of the high seas lawfully and ‘relevant parties’ should refrain from interfering with it.

The freedom of the seas has long been universally recognised; and “innocent passage” is permitted through both territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone extending 200 nautical miles beyond a coastal nation’s territorial sea, even by military vessels, provided they do no harm to the country or break any of its laws.

If India feels its security interests are threatened by the ominous presence of the Chinese research ship prowling her neighbourhood, perhaps the better forum to lodge her protest will be at the UN, rather than with helpless Lanka.

On Friday night, Lanka requested China to defer Yuan Wang’s arrival. Whether China will capitulate to Lanka’s request and turn back Yuan Wang mid-sea, withdrawing with loss of face after standing on her maritime rights, is to be seen.

Adding to the region’s tension this week was the heightened sabre rattling in the international sphere over US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China, which has not given up her claim to the island, threatened swift retaliation should Pelosi land. Hurricane Nancy made her landfall in Taiwan on Tuesday and headed for Japan on Wednesday but, in the wake of her departure, China’s military staged live-fire drills on the fringes of Taiwan, coming as close as 10 miles off its coast.

The IMF bailout process depends on two factors: Lanka’s success in restructuring debt to a sustainable standard, and final approval by the IMF Board of Directors.

The support of the two main creditors, India and China, is indispensable while America’s sway over the IMF shouldn’t be underestimated. All three parties have a vital role to play in leading Lanka out of the woods. At this juncture, Lanka should exercise prudence and refrain from treading on their sensitive toes to avoid them, jointly or singularly, trampling on her dreams.

Unfortunately, Yuan Wang’s imminent arrival at Hambantota Port, attendant with strong Indian protests and Chinese insistence on her maritime rights; and the China-US conflict over American Speaker Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan may force Lanka’s hand to reveal her position but tactful diplomacy should dictate she keeps them both firmly hidden in her empty pockets.

Nor is it the time, as the previous Rajapaksa regime did, to win cheap brownie points from one state scored off another at the same high table but a time to observe strict neutrality in all her dealings.  So mums the word, and discretion should be the better part of the nation’s valour.

Or else, such public denouncements against powerful states will earn nothing more than their ire while the rest of the world will mock with the utmost contempt that bankrupt, prostrate Sri Lanka, desperately begging for a bailout, still has the brazen gall to babble sermons expressing outrage against sovereign nations for any transgressions, when she has lost all claims to credibility and legitimacy to now spout righteous indignations from the moral high ground.

As President Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Wednesday, outlining his foreign policy: ‘All countries in the world are our friends. We have no enemies’. Good. No rush to create an exception now by biting the hand of one and licking that of another when the hands of both are lined up to feed Lanka.

This week Lanka’s loyalty to these friendships will face the acid test. Upon its result will hinge Lanka’s future fate.

Cops must get star ratings for strict law enforcementWhatever drawbacks the Lankan Police Force may have, they must get star ratings at any world forum for their dedication to uphold the rule of law through strict law enforcement.After July 22 midnight crackdown on sleeping protesters at Galle Face Green and clearing the esplanade for public use, they haven’t rested on their laurels but have pursued relentless to bring to book the site’s activists and fellow strugglers for any criminal acts they have committed before or after their occupation of the historic Green.

NO ESCAPE: Arrested for allegedly stealing Gotabaya’s personal presidential flag from President’s House on July 9

Within two weeks, they have tracked down and arrested over 30 suspects who had allegedly committed offences during the occupation of the President’s House, the Presidential Secretariat, Temple Trees and the Prime Minister’s Flower Road office.

Even those who found Rs.17,850,000 at the President’s House, which Gotabaya had left behind in his hasty flight, and had duly handed it over to police custody, counted to the last cent and recorded on video, were arrested and produced in court last week.

Painstaking detective work had also identified the man who had been the first to enter the Presidential Secretariat by drawing a knife before the security personnel and threatening to kill himself if not allowed entry.

Early last week the police launched a manhunt for the person who had appeared on a social media video resting on a bed draped with a sheet alleged to be Gotabaya’s personal presidential flag. On Friday the police successfully arrested the 54-year-old man after he surrendered to the police. And that’s not all. Another person who had entered the President’s House during the July 9 mass rush was arrested on Tuesday for having sat on a president’s chair.

But not all searches have led to successful arrests so far. High on the waned list is a prominent figure who had been in the people’s peaceful movement since its inception in April.  Fr. Jeevantha Peiris, who is a Catholic Priest from the Dioceses of Ratnapura and, according to the Catholic clergy, is the parish priest of a small, poor and remote parish in the district, has been wanted by the police since July 27.

The Catholic clergy on Monday issued a joint statement, signed by 1,640 Catholic Priests, Sisters and Brothers from 23 congregations, expressing concern over his possible arrest and demanding the authorities to stop the repression. Fr. Jeevantha has since filed a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court, seeking the court’s order to prevent his arrest over any Galle Face Green protest incident.

The message from the police is clear and serves as a strong deterrent to any would be protesters seeking to undermine the state. The message warns that no stone will be left unturned to track down and arrest anyone protesting against the State if they commit acts held by police to be illegal.

The unspoken warning comes in the same manner American President Biden warned the world in his message given shortly after US drones targeted and killed a wanted Al-Qaeda leader hiding in Afghanistan on Sunday, when he declared: ‘No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out’.


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