The following article was originally published in Global Times, a Beijing-based daily newspaper.
Hindustan Times reported on December 31 that Sri Lanka has informed India that it will not allow any Chinese research vessel to dock at its ports or operate within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for one year. The move comes close on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging President Ranil Wickremesinghe to respect Indian strategic and security concerns during their meeting on July 21. This means that Chinese scientific research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3, which was scheduled to conduct “deep water exploration” in the south Indian Ocean from January 5, 2024 to late May, will not be granted a clearance by Sri Lankan authorities. Other Indian media outlets have called it the “big win” for India.
The news story raises several questions. Why did Sri Lanka have to inform India about a case between Sri Lanka and China, two independent sovereign countries? How does the presence of a Chinese scientific research vessel, rather than a warship, which was about to head toward Sri Lanka, not India, trigger India’s strategic and security concerns? Sri Lanka serves as a transportation hub in the Indian Ocean, and scientific research vessels from various countries often make port calls there for replenishment. So, why do Chinese vessels face repeated interference and obstruction from India?
The only answer seems to be India’s regional hegemonic mentality. India views the Indian Ocean as its inland sea, sphere of influence, and backyard. Out of this mind-set, India disregards the interests and normal cooperation of other countries, and interferes in the decisions of other sovereign countries whenever possible, all to prove one thing – South Asia is India’s turf, and China, which Indian views as an imaginary enemy, should stay away. It is now the 21st century, yet India’s mind-set remains stuck in the Cold War era.
With the US promoting its Indo-Pacific Strategy by wooing India and the latter’s participation in the Quad, the regional hegemonic mentality of India is becoming increasingly stronger, Zhao Gancheng, a research fellow from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the Global Times.
In October 2023, when the Chinese scientific research vessel Shiyan 6 docked at Sri Lanka’s Colombo port, India didn’t hesitate to hype that “China pokes India” with absurd reasons. “China is using this dual purpose vessel not only for maritime survey but also seabed survey for future operations of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean,” Hindustan Times reported on October 25. Such ridiculous excuse is reflective of India’s delusional thinking, Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times.
The pressure coming from India is all too familiar for South Asian countries. When New Delhi issued warnings to Sri Lanka regarding port calls of Chinese vessels, it also exerted similar pressure on the Maldives. And in late December, reports suggested that India might reassess its decision to enter into negotiations for a proposed Free Trade Agreement with Bangladesh if the latter goes ahead with its intention of joining the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
India’s long-standing hegemonic mentality in South Asia is sometimes referred to as India’s “Monroe Doctrine” — an idea of having an exclusive sphere of influence in and around the Indian subcontinent, Qian said.
After the Modi administration came to power, India openly proposed the Neighborhood First Policy and increased its investment in neighboring countries. However, as India’s influence there has increased to varying degrees, its neighbors increasingly find challenging to act independently without considering India’s attitude. In the end, India’s Neighborhood First Policy has gradually transformed into an “India First Policy.”
As Sri Lanka grapples with economic and political difficulties, to grossly interfere in Sri Lanka’s normal exchange and cooperation with other countries is to exploit its vulnerability, which is morally irresponsible and against the basic norms governing international relations.
Sri Lanka’s decision has satisfied India this time, but it does not mean that Sri Lanka is pleased with the decision. Faced with India’s arrogance and domineering diplomacy, South Asian countries are feeling uneasy and disgruntled, experts said.
Regional countries are aware that India cannot rationally view the pragmatic cooperation between South Asian countries and China. With India’s disruptions, regional countries find it hard to effectively share the “development dividends” brought about by China’s modernization process, especially when India itself is incapable of sharing the same thing.
More importantly, when India’s mind is so occupied by confrontation rather than common development, when it cares only about its own hegemonic interests instead of the interests and needs of other countries, India is simply going toward the completely opposite direction to reach great power status and leader of Global South, Qian said.