Sri Lanka has rejected China’s request to dock one of its submarines in Colombo this month, two senior govt officials said on Thursday as PM Narendra Modi landed in the island nation for a two-day visit. Sri Lanka last allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in the capital of Colombo in October 2014, a move that triggered fierce opposition from India, which worries about growing Chinese activity in a country it has long viewed as part of its area of influence.
A senior Sri Lankan government official told Reuters that China’s request to dock one of its submarines in Colombo this month had been rejected. He said Sri Lanka was “unlikely” to agree to China’s request to dock the submarine at any time, given India’s concerns. The official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The second official, at the defence ministry, also said China’s request to dock the submarine this month had been rejected but that a decision on a further docking had been postponed.
“It might happen later,” the second official told Reuters, adding that China had requested approval to use the port around 16 May “sometime back”. A source close to the Chinese embassy in Colombo confirmed that China had requested permission for the submarine visit but was still awaiting a response.
In January this year, while on an official visit to India, Vice-Admiral RC Wijegunaratne sought to assuage Indian concerns about the presence of Chinese submarines in Colombo port. He was quoted by PTI as having said that the submarines were docked at the Sri Lankan port for ‘purely economic reasons’. The vice-admiral was also by PTI as having added, “We assure the Indian government that nothing against India will happen in Sri Lankan land and waters around it.”
Certainly, China has invested heavily in Sri Lanka in recent years, funding airports, roads, railways and ports — installations that can be ostensibly considered to be for economic reasons. But this has unsettled India, traditionally the closest economic partner of the island nation of 21 million people. After all, more than 70 percent of the trans-shipment in Colombo port comes from India. The Sri Lankan government also wants to establish a petroleum hub with the help of India in the eastern port city of Trincomalee, where Lanka IOC, the subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation, handles 15 out of 99 oil tanks.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is finalising a plan to lease 80 percent of its loss-making Hambantota port to China for 99 years, but the deal has been delayed because of opposition from trade unions.
However, Beijing is widely known to use its economic imperative to push its strategic agenda. A case in point: The string of pearls, wherein China is developing ports and coastal facilities for ‘economic reasons’. India sees this as China’s way of encircling it in the Indian Ocean Region, which is why it has been suspicious of the development of Hambantota, Gwadar and Chittagong ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively. With Chinese submarines — clearly not intended for trade — docking in Colombo, New Delhi’s suspicions naturally went through the roof.
It will be interesting to see now whether Colombo has indeed taken note of India’s concerns or whether the rejection of China’s request to dock its submarines in Sri Lanka was a one-time thing only.