Does Sri Lanka have a balanced Foreign Policy with China? By Arundathie Abeysinghe

Does Sri Lanka have a balanced Foreign Policy with China?

By Arundathie Abeysinghe

Does Sri Lanka have a balanced Foreign Policy with China

Arundathie AbeysingheSri Lanka’s foreign policy challenges come to the forefront as it struggles with the complicated dynamics of maintaining neutrality whilst participating in economic cooperation with powerful states, especially China. Long-term lease of Hambantota Port, presence of Chinese submarines “Shi Yan-6” in October 2023 and ‘Yuan Wang-5’ in August 2022 including plans for a Chinese radar base are major issues which raise questions regarding the foreign policy of the island nation.

Neighboring countries, including India is agonized that ports in Sri Lanka could become pit-stops for Chinese vessels to re-stock supplies and fuel.

Is Sri Lanka caught up in a strategic port deal with China? After struggling for many years to repay the massive loan obtained by the Rajapakse regime, in 2017, Sirisena-Ranil government handed over the port to China on a 99-year lease.

During the handing-over ceremony (in Parliament), former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (current president) said, “Hambantota will be converted to a major port in the Indian Ocean.” Yet, after China gained control of the Port, many analysts raised concerns that China could use it for military purposes. According to former Indian foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon, “the only way to justify the investment in Hambantota is from a national security standpoint – that they will bring the People’s Liberation Army in.”

Similarly, in 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stated, “Beijing pressured Sri Lanka to deliver the new port directly into Chinese hands. It may soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy.” Sri Lankan government rejected the U.S. claim.

This issue was further emphasized by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe in his Oxford University talk “there are no foreign naval bases in Sri Lanka; some people are seeing imaginary Chinese Naval bases.” PM Wickremasinghe’s comments came days after U. S. Vice President Mike’s warnings regarding China’s strategic use of debt.

Meanwhile. in November 2021, United States Department of Defense released a comprehensive report titled ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’ and highlighted the fact that Beijing is already considering and planning for additional military bases and logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces projections in several countries, including Sri Lanka.

Chinese radar base in Dondra Bay

According to scholars, China is planning to set up a radar base in the jungle near Dondra Bay, about 155 kilometers southeast of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital Colombo.

The radar base will facilitate China to monitor India’s assets in the Indian Ocean, including its Navy and strategic installations in the southern and eastern parts of South Asia, similar to Kudankulam and Kalpakkam nuclear power plants and their refuelling activities.

According to observers, Dondra Bay’s radar station could also track the movements of Indian warships en route to Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Additionally, a Chinese radar base in Sri Lanka will also be able to monitor US and UK military assets on Diego Garcia, a British Indian Ocean Territory.

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