In a late evening development on Friday, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Sri Lanka, where he was to ‘review’ the entire gamut of defence ties with the island nation, has been put off with no later date being declared.
A defence ministry release said the visit has been put off due to “unavoidable circumstances” and that the minister “remains committed to strong bilateral cooperation between India and Sri Lanka”.
“He looks forward to visiting the island nation at the earliest possible time frame,” the release added.
Singh was to visit Sri Lanka for two days beginning Saturday. His schedule included meetings with the Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the country’s defence minister, and also Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.
The development acquires significance in the backdrop of Colombo’s reported approval to the docking of the Chinese research vessel Shi Yang 6 in the Colombo and Hambantota ports for 17 days beginning October 26 although it is still not clear in which area in Sri Lanka’s vicinity the Chinese vessel will operate in.
A top source in India’s military establishment had told THE WEEK that the Shi Yang 6’s visit is meant to engineer a crack in the bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka.
While the Shi Yan 6 may be categorised as a research and survey vessel, most such Chinese ships are dual-use vessels with both civilian and military uses. In this effort, the Chinese are partnering with Sri Lanka’s National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).
Chinese research and survey ships operating near Sri Lankan waters have been controversial because of vehement opposition by India which suspects military intentions.
In November 2022, India protested forays by the China spy ship Yuanwang 6 into the waters of the Indian Ocean Region as the ship’s movement was suspected to be linked to planned ballistic missile tests by India.
In August 2022, ignoring Indian protests, another ship, the Yuanwang 5, had dropped anchor for a week-long stay from August 16 to 22 at the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota.
In deep economic distress, Sri Lanka is delicately positioned between India and China neither of whom Colombo can afford to displease. China is Sri Lanka’s biggest single creditor while it was India that bailed out the island nation from the economic chaos with a $4 billion handover in 2022.