Sri Lanka allays Indian concerns, says it believes in regional solidarity; extra regional powers have no strategic leeway in South Asia

Defence sources said it was significant that the Dornier was handed over to Sri Lanka by India a day before the high-tech Chinese satellite tracking ship docked at Hambantota

Sugeeswara Senadhira Aug 22, 2022
Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe was present at the ceremony of Indian Navy's DO 228 Maritime Patrol Aircraft was handed over to Sri Lanka (Photo: Indian Navy/Twitter)

On the eve of the arrival of Chinese satellite tracking ship Yuan Wang 5 to Hambantota port, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena emphasized the importance of Sr Lanka’s ties with India. “The deep, longstanding ties between our two countries have promoted our common strategies for development and enriched our cultures”, he said in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Anniversary on August 15. 

“We are also bound by the common beliefs of peace, harmony and solidarity of the region and world at large,” he said.

The strong bilateral partnership – built on the foundation of shared democratic values -- has never been more important, Prime Minister Gunawardena said. “We look forward to continued close cooperation to build better, safer and more prosperous lives for the peoples of our two countries.”

This reassurance was stressed amid concerns in India over the arrival of Yuan Wang 5. Earlier, Gunawardena told the media that Sri Lanka’s biggest asset was its strategic location and the prime interest of the government was to keep the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace for free commercial navigation. The country has no interest whatsoever in getting involved in regional or international power games. Sri Lanka treats every nation as a friend while zealously guarding its own sovereignty and independence.

Sri Lanka's clarification

In his first interview to a foreign news service, Prime Minister Gunawardena told Tomomi Asano of the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun that since ancient times the ports in Sri Lanka were popular with commercial vessels of the traders and the country continued to provide facilities to vessels from all corners of the world. Even today, vessels of many countries call on Sri Lankan ports and occasionally there are naval crafts calling on for replenishments, joint military exercises or on friendly calls. During all these, Sri Lanka strictly maintains the condition that such visits are not directed against the interests of a third country as Colombo strictly adheres to its policy of neutrality.

This policy demonstrated its practicality once again when there were some apprehensions about the entry of Yuan Wang 5 to Hambantota and those fears were allayed by frank discussions with all the parties concerned.

Though the permission was given in June 2022 for the vessel to enter the port on August 11 and remain until August 16, Sri Lanka requested for its deferment as it was essential to sort out the reasons with India and the United States regarding their expressed concerns. The positive outcome of high-level official consultations resulted in solving those issues and the vessel was allowed to enter Hambantota port on August 16 for a five-day stay.

The talks succeeded as there is a very good understanding between Sri Lanka and its immediate neighbour India as well as the United States.

India's Dornier gift

The friendship and cooperation with India were further stressed when the Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral S.N. Ghormade, came to Colombo last week to hand over a maritime surveillance Dornier aircraft to the Sri Lankan Navy. The aircraft was provided to Sri Lanka from the inventory of the Indian Navy to help the country meet its immediate security requirements. The Indian Navy has already provided extensive training to a team from the Sri Lanka Navy and the Air Force to operate the maritime surveillance aircraft.

Defence experts felt the participation of President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the handing-over ceremony of the Indian aircraft was a clear signal about expanding strategic ties between the two countries. India will provide to Sri Lanka two Dornier aircraft which were being manufactured by the government-owned Indian aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

At the handing-over ceremony, President Wickremesinghe thanked India for gifting the Dornier aircraft to enhance Sri Lanka's maritime surveillance capabilities and bolster India-Sri Lanka defence ties. He said history has brought both nations together like two sides of the same coin and the two countries must forge ahead together. "This is the start of cooperation between our Air force, Navy and Indian Navy in maritime surveillance,” he said.

Defence sources said it was significant that the Dornier was handed over to Sri Lanka by India a day before the high-tech Chinese satellite tracking ship docked at Hambantota.

Foreign vessels

The world's attention to foreign vessels and aircraft entering Sri Lanka in the last few days was not limited to the Chinese vessel and Indian aircraft. Pakistan's newly-commissioned Chinese-built frigate PNS Taimur docked at Colombo port on August 12 for a couple of days and a section of the Indian media inaccurately reported that the vessel took part in Sri Lanka-Pakistan joint "war games".

Sri Lanka Navy rejected the fallacious reports but confirmed that it would hold a "Passage Exercise" in the western seas with PNS Taimur as it leaves the port.

Sri Lanka allowed PNS Taimur to make a port call in Colombo while on its way to join the Pakistan Navy fleet after the Bangladesh government denied it permission to dock at Chattogram port.  August is a month of mourning for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as her father, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, the founder of Bangladesh, was assassinated on August 15, 1975.

Defence analysts are of the opinion that there was no need for India to worry about the entry of Chinese ships to ports in South Asia as all these countries – barring Pakistan -- maintain excellent relations with New Delhi and they will not cooperate or enter into any strategic alliance with extra regional powers.

(The author is Advisor (Media) to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Views are personal)

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