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Months After Banning Research Vessels, Sri Lanka Permits German Vessel’s Docking

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Months After Banning Research Vessels, Sri Lanka Permits German Vessel’s Docking

It underscores yet again the inconsistent and ad hoc foreign policy under President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership.

Months After Banning Research Vessels, Sri Lanka Permits German Vessel’s Docking

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, July 21, 2022.

Credit: Facebook/Ranil Wickremesinghe

The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry recently confirmed allowing a German research vessel, the Sonne, to dock at Colombo Port.

This raised eyebrows among some observers, considering that just a few months ago, the Sri Lankan government announced a one-year moratorium on foreign research vessels docking at its ports.

At the time of the ban, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry insisted that the country was only attempting to maintain stability in the region and that the South Asian nation will use this time to develop its own marine research capabilities so that it can take part in future foreign research expeditions as an equal partner.

A few months before the moratorium, China had sought permission to dock a research vessel, the Xiang Yang Hong 03, in Colombo in early 2024. It was widely acknowledged that the Sri Lankan ban had come after pressure from India and the U.S. and was aimed at Chinese vessels. China was likely frustrated, but Sri Lanka stressed that the ban applied to vessels from all countries.

However, by allowing the German research vessel, the Sonne, to dock, Sri Lanka has signaled that the ban was indeed selective.

Although the foreign ministry’s announcement about the Sonne’s docking at Colombo port came on the third week of March, some members of the Colombo diplomatic community were made aware of it in early March. Diplomatic sources claim that a senior People’s Liberation Army delegation was in Colombo when the Chinese found out about the docking of the German research vessel. The Chinese delegation, reportedly furious, sought to depart the island immediately.

The Sri Lankan foreign ministry is now attempting damage control by stating that “the ban on foreign ships is for research purposes, not on replenishment” and that the country will allow research vessels to dock for such purposes. There were also reports that the Sri Lankan cabinet will discuss “how to handle foreign research vessels in future and [that] the Foreign Ministry is in the process of drafting a cabinet paper for the policy.”

However,  the government announced in September last year that it had already finalized the standard operating procedure (SOP) it would use to grant permission for foreign warships, military aircraft, and research vessels. In November 2023, Sabry told journalists that the ministry has “communicated” the SOP “to the missions who have made such port calls to Sri Lanka during the last 10 years.”

In the circumstances, the decision to revisit the issue raises questions about the necessity of reinventing the wheel.

If anything, allowing the German research vessel in is another indication, among many others in recent months, that President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration has indeed thrown its lot behind India and the U.S.

A day before Sri Lanka’s Independence Day on February 4, the Indian Navy submarine INS Karanj docked at Colombo Port and left after the Independence Day celebrations. The symbolism of the docking as well as the timing of the arrival and departure was not lost among those in Colombo’s political and diplomatic circles.

Earlier this month, the United States concluded a three-day training session with Sri Lankan troops, focusing on instructing the Sri Lankan Air Force in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) flight operations. The Air Force said this collaboration underscores the evolving military partnership between the two nations and that this “ultimately encourages greater interoperability between the United States Department of Defense and the Sri Lanka Tri-Services.” Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s participation in U.S.-led naval missions in the Red Sea reflects a shift that comes at the expense of its traditional allies.

At an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York in September 2023, Wickremesinghe described the strategic tripartite Aukus security pact that includes the U.S., Australia and Britain as “a strategic misstep” and “a mistake,” and went on to dismiss concerns over Sri Lanka.

In January 2024, Wickremesinghe announced his decision to deploy a Sri Lankan Navy ship to the Red Sea. About a month and a half later, Sri Lankans learnt from a speech given by the U.S. ambassador in Colombo that Sri Lanka had indeed sent a ship to the Red Sea to support the U.S.-led anti-Houthi operations. The Houthis, who have launched their latest series of attacks on selected ships on behalf of the Palestinians, are allies of Iran, Russia and China. Not only is Sri Lanka drawing the ire of these two countries, but also it risks losing its friends in the Muslim world.

Since 1977, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has not only been inconsistent, but also irrational if we go by the definition of American political scientists John J. Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato, who said that rational decisions in international politics rest on “credible theories about how the world works and emerges from deliberative decision‑making processes.” This is the opposite of how the Wickremesinghe government makes foreign policy decisions.

Instead of a deliberative decision-making process, it appears evident that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is predominantly shaped by Wickremesinghe and a select group of his close associates.

Moreover, international politics is an information-scarce environment, which often leads to misunderstandings. When a country makes decisions on well-known principles, it helps other nations to rationalize their own policies. This was one of the main benefits of the non-alignment policy that Sri Lanka adhered to before 1977. These well-known principles allowed both sides in the Cold War to determine Sri Lanka’s behavior in international politics with a degree of certainty.

Given the unpredictable shifts in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy under Wickremesinghe’s leadership over the past year, it raises the question of whether any foreign country, lacking access to Wickremesinghe’s inner circle, can accurately ascertain Sri Lanka’s stance on various issues.

Given that China and its allies have many ways to retaliate against Sri Lanka, the vagueness of potential benefits of band-wagoning with India and the U.S. axis, the ad-hoc changes in the direction of policy and the lack of consultation with key stakeholders, it is safe to argue that the foreign policy of the Wickremesinghe government is not only bad but irrational.