Sri Lanka’s strenuous efforts to remain non-aligned in its foreign relations could not have been better reflected than by this week’s twin high-powered delegations visiting New Delhi and Beijing, trying to appease both at the same time and returning with a bagful of pledges–to those countries. But what is in it for Sri Lanka? There’s [...]


Indo-China Cold War goes to the seabed


Sri Lanka’s strenuous efforts to remain non-aligned in its foreign relations could not have been better reflected than by this week’s twin high-powered delegations visiting New Delhi and Beijing, trying to appease both at the same time and returning with a bagful of pledges–to those countries.

But what is in it for Sri Lanka? There’s nothing official so far.

In Delhi, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Chief of Staff led the team to discuss a wide range of subjects, from a land bridge across the Palk Strait to power projects, Renewable Energy (RE) projects, airport and harbour projects, all in Sri Lanka by India, bundled into one package under the broad title ‘connectivity’.

Not to be outdone, in Beijing, the Prime Minister led a delegation for discussions on an equal, if not greater, number of subjects ranging from deepening China’s Belt and Road partnership to stepping up cooperation on connectivity, climate change, medical, agricultural technology, education exchanges, joint work with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, launching sister-city programmes, and, inter alia, maritime matters.

The ongoing rivalry between India and China is playing out even more forcefully these days with the fall of the Maldives into the Chinese sphere of influence at the expense of India. Sri Lanka has become hostage to these competing forces, especially due to its own fragility and dependence on both countries brought about by its economic slump and lack of muscle to bargain better.

Why Delhi and Beijing are in such an indecent hurry to rush these talks and fast-forward agreements with the Sri Lankan government on the eve of elections in the island nation is patently clear. They want to ink the documents so that future governments in Colombo are tied to these as sovereign undertakings.

Almost all the subjects taken up in both Delhi and Beijing this week are ‘unsolicited projects’ so to say, suggestions sprouting from those capitals even though Delhi insists, and probably correctly so, that the land bridge idea was mooted by Colombo.

Not that all these projects are necessarily bad. However, whether Sri Lanka had a plan to deal with these very wide-ranging subjects prior to the Prime Minister and Chief of Staff visiting these capitals is best known only to those in the corridors of power. There was nothing official coming out of either the Presidential Secretariat or the Prime Minister’s Office before they left, not even the names of those in the delegations. The media had to ferret out tidbits of information. Whether the two delegations met to exchange notes is questionable. Maybe there was nothing to say because there was nothing to say. Each delegation seems to have gone on its merry way without any coordination.

Both delegations exposed senior government officials to high-powered, hard-nosed negotiators from those countries. One could imagine Delhi and Beijing breathing down on Sri Lanka’s ill-prepared officials. It needed no guesswork to expect the talks to be driven by the Indian and Chinese sides and not by the Sri Lankan delegations because there was a lot at stake in the surrounding geopolitical circumstances involving the two countries.

This Cold War between India and China for supremacy in the Indian Ocean has exposed Sri Lanka to diplomatic frostbite. It has now extended to a new front; one aimed at the vast mineral resources on the seabed. Where will this take Sri Lanka’s neutrality? Last week, this newspaper ran a BBC article titled ‘India in undersea race to mine the world’s battery metal—increasing competition between major global powers in the Indian Ocean’.

The commentary was all about India taking another step in its quest to find valuable minerals hidden in the depths of the Indian Ocean and having applied for more licences to reach the huge deposits of cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese that lie thousands of metres below the surface of the oceans. These minerals are used to produce RE such as solar, wind power, EVs (electric vehicles) and battery technology.

It is the UN-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA) that issues licences for such exploratory work. The ISA met in Jamaica this week, and India sent a high-powered team from its Ministry of Earth Sciences to argue its case clearly to catch up with increasing Chinese work and dominance in the same field in the same seas.

The ISA has pointed out that there is another country that has claimed the seabed area that India has applied for. That country is Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has already made a claim under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea that this patch is within its continental shelf beyond its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). India could not have been unaware of Sri Lanka’s claim, but went ahead with its application.

This explains India’s vehement protests over the increasing requests for visits by Chinese maritime research vessels in Sri Lankan waters wanting to study sea currents and seabed activity, which forced Colombo to declare a one-year moratorium on such research exercises. It seems India’s concerns were not only of these Chinese vessels engaging in spying activities, but also to do with the race for the minerals on the ocean floor.

Buffeted from side to side by the two rising powerhouses, Sri Lanka is going to be faced with ever-increasing headaches balancing the pressures from India and China in this new area.

While these mineral resources under the sea are useful components to make the world cleaner with RE resources, environmentalists say that with Planet Earth’s land area and space already devastated by human consumption, the seabed remains the last frontier, which will have its days numbered with the kind of exploration exercise mapped out amid geopolitical competition.

In Sri Lanka, the opposition is mute on the Indo-China rivalries unravelling in and around Sri Lanka, playing safe with both countries, not wanting to rub them on the wrong side. They are leaving the headaches for the government to handle, keeping their options open to blame it for whatever goes wrong.

They had better open their eyes and their mouths to what is happening because these headaches will remain ‘live’ for them to inherit if and when they come into office.

It may be too late then to turn the tide.


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