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Following Indian pressure, Sri Lanka seeks to delay Chinese military ship expedition

Following continued opposition from Indian officials, Sri Lanka has requested an indefinite delay to a Chinese military ship that had planned to dock in Hambantota port.

The public U-turn follows the president’s inaugural speech in which heaped praise upon the Indian government for giving us “a breath of life” and slammed previous decisions to withdraw from Indian-led investment projects unilaterally. Sri Lankan President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, also spoke on the need to put “ineffective” state enterprises into private hands.

Whilst Chinese officials have insisted that the Yuan Wang 5 is a research and survey vessel, Indian officials have raised concerns that it is a “dual-use spy ship, employed for space and satellite tracking and with specific usage in intercontinental ballistic missile launches”.

The decision is seen as a sharp divorce from the Rajapaksa administration, which had pivoted away from India and towards China. Whilst scrapping agreements over the oil tanks in Trincomalee and the development of the Eastern Container Terminal, the Rajapaksa clan continued to foster close ties with Beijing by granting Chinese authorities the right to develop the Colombo Port City project.

As the economic crisis worsened, trust with Chinese investors was shot by a poorly considered fertiliser policy and the rejection of 20,000 tonnes of fertiliser by the Chinese company Seawin Biotech. This would lead to a costly lawsuit and a ban on Sri Lanka’s ‘People’s Bank’. In December 2021, Sri Lanka’s then finance minister Basil Rajapaksa reportedly went to New Delhi to “beg from India”. During this meeting, Indian officials pushed to increase development agreements across the neglected North-East.

Speaking in Colombo last year, Rohan Gunaratna, director-general of the Sri Lankan Institute of National Security Studies—a government-aligned think tank— maintained that the government was in the middle of a course correction after having pivoted too close to China.

“Sri Lanka’s strategic pendulum is shifting away from China towards India and the United States,” he said.

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