The Chinese have complete control of Hambantota harbour as Lanka leased it to China Merchants Port Holdings for 99 years in 2017. In this overall context, Sri Lanka has almost no real choice. That is exactly what happened with Yuan Wang 5. In such a situation, issues of sovereignty for Sri Lanka regarding ships in its territorial waters and harbours are mere catchwords.

Yuan Wang are perhaps the most well-known Chinese words in the Indian Ocean Region and in South Asia generally. And that too for all the wrong reasons. Chinese vessel Yuan Wang 5 is touted as a research vessel by the Chinese, but as a spy ship by India, the US, and perhaps most other nations. The arrival of Yuan Wang 5 in the Indian Ocean and its docking at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port offers an interesting cartography of how gunboat diplomacy can play out in the region, particularly when it involves bankrupt nation-states like Sri Lanka, lacking credible decision-making and advisory mechanisms when it comes to both national security and day-to-day diplomacy. It also places in context India’s role in the region as its most powerful military and economic power when confronted by an entity such as the Chinese state. It makes sense to explore more carefully and rationally what this incident entails for the future, rather than getting entangled in primordial ‘national’ issues.

A former member of India’s national security advisory board, Brahma Chellaney, tweeted on August 16, 2022, “when a small, bankrupt nation like Sri Lanka delivers a diplomatic slap to New Delhi by hosting a Chinese surveillance ship at its commercial port of Hambantota, it is a stunning reminder of both India’s feckless foreign policy and receding influence in its strategic backyard.” Notwithstanding Chellaney’s understandable annoyance, things are not this simple. Sri Lanka hardly has the ability to diplomatically or otherwise slap anyone other than its own citizens — as it is doing right now. Sri Lanka’s actions are typical of what we might call a ‘failed state’ that is also financially bankrupt. Besides, despite being an island, Sri Lanka does not have a clearly defined and operational National Maritime Policy. It also does not have a National Security Advisor with the right kind of background. Its National Security Council is weak and inconsequential at best, and it is due to its lapses and political interference in it that the Easter Bombings of 2019 took place despite receiving prior actionable intelligence.

How would a country with this kind of national security apparatus and a highly politicised civil service, public service and external affairs set-up make decisions? What Sri Lanka has done with regard to the arrival of Yuan Wang 5 outlines the prevailing conditions and offers the answers to the question above. The permission for the ship to enter Hambantota was given during the tenure of deposed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Given the absence of the decision-making apparatuses and policy frameworks referred to above, it clearly appears like an ad-hoc and badly advised decision. After all, Lanka had a formal Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) understanding, involving both India and the Maldives, and one of its primary conditions was to keep each other informed of sensitive movements in the Indian Ocean Region. How well this understanding worked in reality or not, or whether the information flow within the parameters of the agreement was democratic and equitable is altogether a different matter. In the very least, it is a matter of courtesy to keep India informed. This does not mean, however, that Lanka cannot or should not have an independent foreign or maritime security policy. But to do so, its decision-making and security policy frameworks must be both professional and competent. ‘Independence’ in this sense does not mean hostility.

However, in today’s circumstances, Sri Lankan reality is not the ideal referred to above. Sri Lanka is seriously in debt to China monetarily due to numerous white elephant projects undertaken with Chinese loans, including the Hambantota harbour itself, along with other loans with no significant returns. On the other hand, the Chinese have complete control of the Hambantota harbour as Lanka leased it to China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited for 99 years in 2017. In this overall context, Sri Lanka has almost no real choice except to say ‘yes’ if a Chinese ship of whatever nefarious credentials wants to dock in Hambantota and if that is the wish of the Chinese state. That is exactly what happened with Yuan Wang 5. In such a situation, issues of sovereignty, which Lanka is still supposed to exercise with regard to ships that come into its territorial waters and harbours, are mere catchwords that mean nothing in the world of realpolitik as clearly indicated in this case. But for sure, Lanka’s decision-making is embarrassing and completely devoid of self-respect for a nation- state: first to say yes to the Chinese; and then hold the order in abeyance under pressure from India and the US; and finally clearing it simply due to having no choice. This is obviously not the way to run a country’s foreign policy or operationalise its national and maritime security interests.

Seen in this sense, this is not matter of a slap on New Delhi, but making an unenviable albeit unprofessional choice between ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’! But clearly, Lanka has driven itself to this position and literally against the wall due to its complete lack of competence in foreign affairs, public policy and national security. This state of affairs is nothing new, but it has now become clearer since politicisation of civil and foreign services and years of political tinkering in these spheres have left its mark. And it shows when it comes to issues such as the mishandling of the Yuan Wang 5 incident.

But what does this incident say about the operationalisation of India’s foreign policy and its maritime and national security interests in the region? Obviously, India cannot depend on failed states or banana republics such as Sri Lanka beyond a point. Such nations, when placed in the kind of position Lanka is at present, can hardly look after their own interests leave alone be mindful of the national security concerns of others — be that India or some other nation-state. The reality is, India needs to construct its own naval and other security capabilities if it is seriously interested in addressing external influences in the ocean, ground, space or cybersphere. It is not that the country does not have these skills. But these need to be more clearly focused and attuned towards redefining and building security infrastructure along with a nuanced foreign policy itself.

Until this is done, and the kind of predicament Lanka presented is carefully taken into account, one should not assume there will not be repetitions of the kind of gunboat diplomacy performances as typified by the Yuan Wang 5 incident. It also means, when South Asian nation-states self-consciously turn themselves into banana republics as Lanka has so obviously done, one’s destinies will move further away from one’s own control as well as beyond the region.

Source: The Tribune