India’s objections to the docking of the Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang 5, in Hambantota only added fuel to the ongoing diplomatic battle between the two countries. India had earlier refused to reiterate its ‘One China’ policy as also provided visible military support to the Dalai Lama on his visit to Ladakh, much against the wishes of China. It also released photographs of the Dalai Lama being received by the air force station commander at the air base from where he was lifted by helicopter to his destination, further hitting China. China won a round when Sri Lanka permitted the Yuan Wang 5 to dock in Hambantota.
The Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, wrote an article in the Sri Lankan Guardian, seeking to project its diplomatic victory by accusing India, without naming it, of pressurizing Sri Lanka to block the Chinese ship from berthing. He stated, ‘external obstruction based on so-called security concerns but without any evidence from certain forces is de facto a thorough interference into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence.’ He went on to malign India by adding, ‘looking back at the great history of the island, Sri Lanka overcame aggression from its northern neighbour 17 times.’
The Indian High Commission in Columbo responded in equal measure. In a series of tweets it hit back at China. It stated, ‘His (Chinese Ambassador’s) violation of basic diplomatic etiquette may be a personal trait or reflecting a larger national attitude (wolf warrior diplomacy).His view of Sri Lanka`s northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves. India, we assure him,is very different.’ Chinese aggressiveness is well established in Asia.
The High Commission added, ‘Opaqueness and debt-driven agendas are now a major challenge, especially for smaller nations. Recent developments are a caution. SriLanka needs support, not unwanted pressure or unnecessary controversies to serve another country`s agenda.’It also mentioned, ‘(the article) inter-alia drew connection between militarization of Taiwan straits and visit of the ship to Hambantota.’ It was the first time Indian diplomats have openly accused China of ‘militarization of Taiwan straits.’ This is an indicator of India’s growing diplomatic clout, confidence and willingness to counter Beijing.
China has yet to respond to Sri Lanka’s request for debt rescheduling, aware of the crisis the country is going through. India, on the other hand, has been supporting Sri Lanka by providing financial aid as also food stocks and medicines. China, as is its wont, promises aid but hardly delivers. It had, contrary to Indian official conveyance of concerns, pressurized the Sri Lankan government to permit the berthing of Yuan Wang 5 on threats of recalling its debts as also that the port of Hambantota is in Chinese hands.
China continues to insist that Sri Lanka procure its organic fertilizers, despite Columbo announcing that they contain harmful bacteria and were one of the causes for its current dire financial situation.The Chinese fertilizer company is now challenging the Sri Lankan government in court insisting it adheres to agreements. On the contrary, in Jun, India opened a USD 55 Million line of credit for Sri Lanka to procure urea fertilizers.
Attempting to cool down rising temperatures between India and China, the Chinese ambassador in Delhi, Sun Weidong, made conciliatory comments. He did so on the side lines of a seminar in Bangalore titled ‘Interference of the US imperialist in the internal affairs of the People’s Republic of China,’ organized by the India-China Friendship Association, Karnataka chapter. He stated, ‘This relationship (India-China) has witnessed some momentum of recovery due to the joint efforts of both sides. This year, President Xi Jinping has a congratulatory letter to President Murmu.’ He added, ‘We find common grounds and census on the China-India relationship because we all believe the China-India relationship is very important both for our two countries, our people and for the region and the world. We should come together and see each other as partners rather than rivals.’
The Indian foreign minister dumped the Chinese ambassador’s reconciliatory tone and claims of improving Indo-Chinese ties. Addressing the Asia Society Policy Institute, he stated, ‘For ties to return to a positive trajectory and remain sustainable, they must be based on the three mutuals: mutual sensitivity, mutual respect and mutual interest.I can only reiterate that the state of the border will determine the state of the relationship.’ India has refused to change its China stance aware that Beijingcontinues to face multiple military, economic and diplomatic pressures.
China also comprehends the military threat India can pose. The US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral, Mike Gilday, stated in an in house seminar, ‘The fact that India and China currently have a bit of a skirmish along their border … it’s strategically important.They now force China to not only look east, toward the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, but they now have to be looking over their shoulder at India. What India needs to do is to be as strong as possible in South Asia and effectively draw Chinese attention so that they have a major second-front problem.’ Simultaneously, India gains from the QUAD in a manner that China faces a strong US, Japan, Australia coalition on its Eastern coast.
India currently has a formidable military posture along the LAC, primarily around Ladakh, where the Chinese CPEC communication network is most vulnerable. China is aware, post the Kailash Ridge episode and realignment of strike forces, that India possesses a viable offensive capability. India could exploit Chinese vulnerabilities in case it decides to venture into a war with Taiwan. Hence, China will be compelled to maintain sufficient forces to prevent India from exploiting its vulnerabilities. The Chinese Western Theatre Command would remain tied down.
While trade between India and China continues there are no signs of a diplomatic or military thaw. India counters every Chinese move. It refuses to be cowed down while China remains concerned of the military threat which India can pose. India continues to exert diplomatic pressure on China to resolve the LAC standoff. Who will blink first remains to be seen. Currently, it will not be India.
The author is Major General (Retd)