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Sri Lanka to lift ban on foreign research vessels next year

Chinese research ship Shi Yan 6 is seen berthed at Colombo harbor, Sri Lanka. File.
| Photo Credit: AP

Sri Lanka will resume permitting calls from foreign research vessels at its ports from next year, as the government “cannot only block China”.

Foreign Minister Ali Sabry made the remarks to Japanese state media NHK World during his recent visit to Tokyo. Japan along with India and France —is a co-chair of Sri Lanka’s Official Creditors’ Committee that on June 26, 2024 firmed up a debt treatment deal with Sri Lanka.

“We cannot have different rules for different countries and only block China. We will not do that. We will not take sides,” Mr. Sabry said in an interview. In January 2024, Sri Lanka banned the visit of foreign research vessels after India and the United States voiced concern over the visit of at least two Chinese research vessels, Shi Yan 6 and Yuan Wang 5, in the two preceding years.

Sri Lanka’s ports, over the last few years, have emerged as prominent sites of competing strategic interests of big powers. In May last year, China Merchants Group announced a nearly $400 million investment towards constructing a large logistics complex at the Colombo Port, the first major foreign investment to come into Sri Lanka since its default in 2022.

India, along with its Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) or ‘Quad’ partners, the U.S., Japan and Australia, has been focused on countering Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean Region. In 2020, India pushed for the revival of the Colombo Security Conclave with Sri Lanka and the Maldives, expanding it to include Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Bangladesh.

Further, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, during his visit to Colombo on June 20, 2024, commissioned a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), based at the Colombo Naval Headquarters, with a sub-centre in the southern Hambantota district, and unmanned installations across Sri Lanka’s coastline. Following its launch, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office said the Centre reflected “the deepening maritime security cooperation” between India and Sri Lanka.

The U.S., too, is playing a greater role at Sri Lankan ports. Its Development Finance Corporation (DFC) announced a $553 million investment in the Adani Ports-led West Container Terminal project underway at the Colombo Port. Last week, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and the Virginia Ports Authority (VPA), signed a pact for exchange of expertise and technical collaboration.

Meanwhile, Japan plans to provide Sri Lanka a vessel equipped with underwater sonar, used for detecting the location of other vessels to improve the country’s oceanographic survey capabilities. In his recent interview, Mr. Sabry noted that the move gives the island nation an opportunity to do “its own survey and collect its own data, and commercially exploit it by sharing it with the rest of the world”.

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