The Indian and Chinese diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka sparred on social media over the visit of a Chinese military research vessel to the island nation.
Indian officials appear to be increasingly irritated at the lack of progress in resolving the border standoff with China, and they are becoming less hesitant about expressing their frustration. The latest indication is the Indian embassy in Sri Lanka criticizing an essay written by the Chinese ambassador in Sri Lanka, in rather harsh terms, and with a pointed reference to Taiwan.
The most recent controversy began with the docking of a Chinese research vessel, the Yuan Wang 5, at the strategically significant Hambantota Port in southern Sri Lanka on August 16. The Chinese military research vessel was originally supposed to arrive at the Sri Lankan port on August 11 but Sri Lankan officials had not cleared it due to “security concerns raised by India.” According to Indian media reports, China was granted permission on August 13 “on condition that it will keep the Automatic Identification System (AIS) switched on within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Sri Lanka and no scientific research to be conducted in Sri Lankan waters.”
The nature of the Chinese vessel added to the controversy, with China stating that it is a research vessel on scientific missions, whereas the U.S. Department of Defense said that the ship is “under the command” of the People’s Liberation Army, with capabilities to track satellites and missile launches. India suspects that its spaceport in Sriharikota, its missile test range in Odisha, as well as several other sensitive facilities are within the tracking range of Yuan Wang 5.
Chinese Ambassador in Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong, in an article published in the Sri Lanka Guardian, attacked India for Sri Lanka’s initial rejection of the Chinese request to dock the ship in Hambantota. The ambassador wrote, “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.” The ambassador also took on the U.S. for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan claiming that “[i]t seriously infringes on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, gravely undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and sends a seriously wrong signal to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.” He added that the visit was in “serious violation” of the One China principle and the commitments under the three U.S.-China joint communiques.
Linking these two issues appears to have irritated India. In an uncharacteristic fashion, the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka responded to the Chinese ambassador in a series of tweets, saying, “We have noted the remarks of the Chinese Ambassador. His violation of basic diplomatic etiquette may be a personal trait or reflecting a larger national attitude.” In the same Twitter thread, the High Commission added, “His view of #SriLanka’s northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves. #India, we assure him, is very different. His imputing a geopolitical context to the visit of a purported scientific research vessel is a giveaway.”
In an obvious reference to the massive Chinese infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, the High Commission also raised the issues of debt-driven schemes and lack of transparency and how some of the recent developments in Sri Lanka are a reflection of those problems. In a final tweet, the High Commission stated that “Sri Lanka needs support, not unwanted pressure or unnecessary controversies to serve another country’s agenda.”
There were additional tweets later in the night in which the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka made direct reference to the militarization of the Taiwan Strait. The tweet said that “The Spokesman of @IndiainSL issued the above tweets in response to queries concerning the article by Chinese Ambassador to #SriLanka which, inter alia, drew connection between militarization of Taiwan Straits and visit of China’s Yuan Wang 5 ship to Hambantota.” The Indian mission’s reference to Taiwan this time around is sharply different from its comments on August on the Chinese military drills, during the visit of Pelosi to the island. On August 12 and well as on August 25, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson responded to the Taiwan question by saying it is committed to its One China policy and that “India’s relevant policies are well known and consistent. They do not require reiteration.” This came in the backdrop of the Chinese ambassador in India seeking an Indian reiteration of its One China policy, when he said that “My understanding is that India’s ‘One China’ policy has not changed…We hope that India can reiterate support for the ‘One China principle.”
Indian officials have signaled growing irritation with the lack of progress in the several rounds talks between the two sides aimed at resolving the border stand-off. Although the talks made some limited progress initially, they now appear to be deadlocked. Earlier in August, the Indian foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, even characterized the unresolved confrontation as a “dangerous situation” because of the border situation, insisting that relations can’t be normal under such circumstances.