The war of words between the Chinese Ambassador and the Indian High Commission in Colombo over the Yuan Wang episode shows the India-China relationship in unseemly light in a third country. It puts host Sri Lanka, already in a tough place, in a corner over its relations with both countries. Significantly, the Chinese envoy appeared to frame India-China tensions as part of the wider geopolitical rivalry between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific. Delhi’s approach so far has been to delink its difficult relationship with Beijing from its relations with the US, and with other Quad members. This has helped prevent India’s border issue with China from getting entangled in a big power race for supremacy. And to keep the responsibility for resolving the issue within the bilateral relationship. This is why Delhi has appeared more restrained than many western countries in pronouncements on China. External Affairs minister S Jaishankar said the other day that India-China relations are going through an “extremely difficult phase”. In recent statements on the Taiwan issue, India expressed concern and neutrally urged “restraint, avoidance of unilateral actions to change status quo, de-escalation of tensions and efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region.”
It is surprising that after China’s emphatic assertion that the ship had no military purpose, Chinese envoy Qi Zhenhong, who set off the spat with an article in a Sri Lanka publication, should draw a parallel between the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan and the Yuan Wang in Hambantota port. His assertion that China and Sri Lanka “jointly safeguard each other’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity” (Colombo had made a statement during the Taiwan crisis reiterating its support for the one-China policy) and that Sri Lanka had faced “aggression” from its “northern neighbour”, are clearly attempts at escalating the row. The Indian High Commission, in turn, accused the Chinese envoy of violating diplomatic etiquette, “which may be a personal trait or reflective of a national attitude”, and said the Chinese ambassador had “given the game away” by giving a geopolitical colour to the ship’s visit. It also used the word “militarisation” for the first time with reference to China’s response to the Pelosi visit.
India need not have risen to the bait. But if what the Chinese envoy says is correct, it shows Beijing in poor diplomatic light for trying to widen its tensions with the US by pulling into it a country struggling to survive its economic collapse. It seems that his intention was also to derail India-Sri Lanka ties. Colombo needs help with money at the moment, not a geopolitical crisis on its territory. China has not yet said how it intends to help Sri Lanka restructure its debt, despite a formal request from Colombo. If Beijing is really a steadfast friend of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan people and the world would like it to show more purpose on this front instead of stirring the geopolitical pot.