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An insecure India isn't really what PM Modi envisioned when he floated the idea of an entirely developed India by 2047. While huge economic leaps, composite national power, and lucrative investments are the logical corollaries to an ideal, theoretically “strong”, a commensurate change in attitude is equally as important. India’s ambition and anxiety thus, don't bode well together. 

The presence of a Chinese research vessel or an aggressive “spy” ship- Yuan Wang-5 as Indian media reports, caused disquiet in the Indian capital. When the discovery of said ship docking in the Sri Lankan waters for “replenishment” was made public, India was certain that Sri Lanka would not undermine India’s requests in furtherance of Indian security interests. This  assurance can be attributed to India’s vociferous support of Sri Lanka, especially amid its worst economic and political breakdown. This incident, however, doesn't simply point to India’s stringent maintenance of security by means of controlling factors beyond its borders, it also indicates the sense of entitlement that the country has. These apprehensions, however, were quick to be dismissed by Colombo, as it reversed its decisions, days after it asked Beijing to postpone the visit of its research ship Hambantota. New Delhi’s confidence has all the while dissipated. 

The reasons for this reversal remain unclear, but it can be presumed that since YW-5 isn't a classified warship, Colombo did not feel persuaded enough to entirely bar its entrance and open up the pandora’s box of animosity with China, all while drowning in red tape. Because the ship (or as Chinese records state) is simply a satellite tracking ship, it does not pose a reasonable threat to Indian integrity, security, and unity, or violates the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord (discussed further). 

Indian authorities believe that Sri Lanka has simply succumbed to pressure from China on account of the massive developmental investments. Per reports Sri Lanka did impose restrictions on the vessel, acting on India’s concerns. Yuan Wang 5 was granted access a few days after it was originally supposed to dock, and permission for berthing at the Chinese-owned deep-sea port came on conditions that the ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) will remain switched on and no ‘scientific research can be carried out in Sri Lankan waters. The rotation of personnel was also disallowed during the port call. However, this aforementioned “belief” reveals India's thin-skinned demeanor, clubbed with its lack of forbearance and its constant need to act as a “big brother” to its economically weaker, developing counterparts. 

The visit of YW-5 can, in all technicality be construed as one wherein surveillance and transparency via the sea are acknowledged as legitimate, internationally recognized means of upkeep. While some say that these “friendly” attempts are in fact hostile and carry out routine and sometimes, unauthorized surveillance in the Asian littorals the reality for New Delhi is that China has had Hambantota port for 99 years, and is entitled to use it for non-military activity in a manner it deems fit.

Even the 1982 UNCLOS (discussed further)  agreement permits unfettered freedom of navigation on the high seas and a foreign warship has as much right to be in the Indian Ocean as a similar Indian vessel would in the South China Sea. Vessels thus, enjoy right of “innocent passage” even on territorial waters of another state and docking in foreign ports with prior consent is allowed.

Indo-Sri-Lankan Accord 

The Indo-Lanka Accord also referred to as the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord (after its architects former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President J.R. Jayewardene) was signed in 1987. The accord crudely formalized the need for recourse on three shared issues between India and Sri-Lanka, them being: 

  • Strategic Interests
  • Tamil minority rights of Sri-Lankan citizens 
  • Conditions of people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka

This accord facilitated the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka.

It was framed and signed in hopes of resolving the Sri Lankan Civil War by enabling the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987.

1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

The UNCLOS adopted in 1982, explains an elaborate, comprehensive regime of law and order applicable to the world’s oceans, consisting of rules governing the usage of ocean, its passages and miscellaneous resources. It embodies in one instrument traditional rules for the uses of the oceans and at the same time introduces new legal concepts and regimes and addresses new concerns. 

The Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) of the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations serves as the secretariat of the Convention on the Law of the Sea providing requisite information, counsel and assistance to member states. It also assists the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea in reviewing such developments.

China’s Indian Ocean strategy

One of the reasons why India chooses to view the situation in an apprehensive and defensive manner is the belief that the deployment of YW-5 is in furtherance of China’s Indian Ocean strategy. This implies that while China is unwilling to dominate the region in a territorial context, it wishes to exert its influence in a way that creates a favorable environment for the implementation of its indigenous developmental strategies. These strategies are primarily aimed at expanding stakeholdership in the littorals through a gradual expansion of quasi-military presence. For instance, China has been known to send survey and research naval ships in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to ensure its visibility. The “developmental” aspect of this particular tactic is ambiguous, however, the psychological influence is quite apparent. 

Because China’s moves have been questioned, condemned, and put under heavy scrutiny in the past, it has gone out on a limb to reassure regional states that unless necessitated by operational reasons, it would desist from deploying warships in foreign ports.

In a nutshell, according to Indian diplomats, Chinese policy regarding the Indian ocean revolves around blatant encroachment that expands china’s tactical space and further asserts Beijing's rights and interests. The yardstick for whether China’s activities in Sri Lanka are legitimate or not would be whether Chinese actions are acceptable to Sri Lankan strategic experts.

New Delhi 

New Delhi perceives Colomobo’s move as a “diplomatic slap” by propounding the narrative that Sri Lanka is “ungrateful” of India's “generous support”. India expresses feeling “betrayed” by its neighbor. It is still unclear if this is a case of India’s strategic altruism. 

While India views this from a singular, monotonous perspective, it should acknowledge that the situation must be a diplomatic dilemma for Sri-Lanka too, which is simply looking out to protect its own interest., without stepping on anyone’s toes, by means of striking a negotiated balance.These interests include the fact that China is a major player in Sri Lanka’s external debt and its largest bilateral creditor. An estimated 26% of Lanka’s foreign debt can be traced back to Chinese creditors. Even though China largely turned a deaf  ear (owing to Lanka’s poor forex liquidity) to Sri Lanka’s requests for bridge financing requisites, it is still hugely dependent on China if it wants to steer clear of added international pressure. 

Sri Lanka should, infact engage proactively with China in order to write off or restructure a loan repayment timeline. 

While there is no doubt that Beijing’s cunning tactic of ensnaring nations in the Indian periphery through persuasive and coercive diplomacy is a red flag for India, the recourse cannot be to blame the same peripheral, smaller nations. Sri Lanka can hardly be blamed for attempting to balance between the two Asian giants and choosing to not be a pawn. 


India should get off its moral high horse, which it mounted by virtue of aiding Lanka by being a first responder in its hour of need. This economic meltdown was infact a seminal moment in the relationship, which India should see as an opportunity to build its image as a sympathetic world power, leaving behind a legacy of trust. These calls for “punishment” and expression of “grave betrayal” are indignant discourses which reflect a myopic view on any future bilateralrelations. This will ultimately lead to other countries harbouring resentment and ostracising India, threatening its security, economic health and social development. Besides, as knowledgeable voices have averred, China, in this instance, might be on firm legal ground.

India has cause for alarm, but not panic, and any further steps should be taken after thorough discussions and a risk-benefit analysis, including both tangible and intangible factors.  

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