Global Express | China’s stranglehold on Sri Lanka: What does it mean for India?

The very last thing anyone expected was for India’s relationship with its albeit less than close neighbour, the  Maldives to sour in the manner it has, this last week.  There is reportedly some behind-the-scenes move to calm the waters by inviting the China-leaning new President Mohammed Moizzu to India. Moizzu ‘s first foreign visit incidentally, was to Turkey, his second to China.But while India may quietly do everything it can, to see the Maldives does not drift out of Delhi’s diplomatic sphere of influence, Sri Lanka, where India has even higher stakes is another potentially potent China target.The deep political and social distress in Sri Lanka among its people has seen Beijing fishing in these troubled waters.Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, the present Executive Director of the South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) under the Millennium Project in Washington DC, USA. And a Technical Advisor to the IMF who has led two foreign policy and defence government think tanks has just released a new book.Talking to senior journalist Neena Gopal about ‘Teardrop Diplomacy: China's Sri Lanka Foray (2023)’, he lays out the Chinese stranglehold on Sri Lanka using debt and defence deals to choke the island nation.One of the most worrying aspects in the book isn’t just how China is playing Sri Lanka off against India, it’s the fact that it is using oodles of cash to buy off key officials and senior members of the Sri Lankan government.It doesn’t end there. On November 20th, 2023, the Special envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping, State Councilor Shen Yiqin, said, “China is prioritizing the extension of the Corridor, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) to the island nation”.President Wickremasinghe has accepted this proposal. In other words, CMEC could extend all the way from Myanmar to Colombo, ringing India from the east just as CPEC does on its western border.Clearly, President Ranil Wickremesinghe- long seen as leaning towards India but now under the sway of former president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, seems to be making a shift – a discernible shift in Sri Lanka’s stance away from India. Wickremasinghe’s criticism of the Indo-Pacific and AUKUS, bringing up Western human rights hypocrisy was a clear signal, a definite departure from the past.Some even ask the big question - is Wickremasinghe playing India off against China? Or is there more?The biggest red flag is the arrival of the Chinese research vessel Shi Yan 6 in Sri Lanka in December and it claims this was done under the cover of research collaboration with Sri Lankan Aquatic Institute NATIONAL AQUATICS RESEARCH CENTRE -    NARA.The justification put out by Nara is that this is part of the mapping of the Indian Ocean. Except, this has been done by the Indian Navy down to the last coral.Why is Sri Lanka unable to stop China. What China really wants to do is no secret, reveals Asanga. It wants to set up monitoring cells on the sea bed, laying the ground for a future submarine base.Let’s not forget that in 2022, the Yuang Wang 5 docked at Hambantota! Setting off shivers in Delhi!The China naval base deal always had the blessings of the previous Presidents Mahinda and Gota Rajapaksa. Has Ranil abandoned the agreement he had signed off on when he visited India in 2023 –which gave Delhi a greater say in such matters.let’s not forget. This is China’s tried and tested foreign policy trap. Call it Debt diplomacy? Strategic diplomacy? Or in the case of Sri Lanka - Teardrop diplomacy in this island nation.Either way, does India have a counter? Can it woo Ranil back into Delhi’s sphere of influence? As it must.Sri Lanka recently informed India and the U.S. that it’s imposed a one-year ban on Chinese research vessels operating in Sri Lanka waters, starting this January, but sceptics say Colombo has done it before, specifically in 2022, only to relent under Chinese pressure in 2023. Will Ranil Wickremesinghe keep his word, this time, is the moot question.

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