If last week’s visit to Beijing by Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was meant to allay fears that the island nation’s new government was distancing itself from China, it failed.
If anything, Samaraweera’s comments on the prospect of Chinese submarines using Sri Lanka as a stopover on long-distance westward missions and of bankrolling it through big loans underlined Colombo’s hardening position, experts said.
That would be welcomed by India, which, as Sri Lanka’s neighbour and traditional protector, had grown alarmed at its lurch towards China under the leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, ousted in a shock election defeat in January.
“Some people say the (Sri Lankan) government had put too many eggs in the China basket,” said Sinderpal Singh, an India expert at the National University of Singapore.
“It’s a symbol to say ‘we would like to recalibrate our policy to one equidistant between India and China’.”
During his trip, Samaraweera said he did not envisage any more visits by Chinese submarines in the near future.
India voiced concern in November when Rajapaksa’s government allowed a Chinese submarine and warship to dock in Colombo, seven weeks after another submarine called at the same port.
“…We will ensure that such incidents, from whatever quarters, do not happen during our tenure,” Samaraweera said of the potential diplomatic embarrassment.
Samaraweera made the remarks to the press and did not discuss warships or submarines during talks with Chinese officials, according to a member of the Sri Lankan delegation.
And while his comments do not preclude the future use of Sri Lankan facilities by Chinese submarines, they pointed to greater caution both in economic and military relations.