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Foreign research vessels: Govt. moots moratorium

Foreign research vessels: Govt. moots moratorium

18 Dec 2023 | BY Asiri Fernando

  • SL turns down Chinese MSR visit request

The Government of Sri Lanka is considering a moratorium on granting diplomatic permission for foreign marine scientific research (MSR) vessels for 2024 and beyond, senior government sources close to the matter told The Daily Morning.

The decision comes weeks after Sri Lanka communicated a reviewed standard operational procedure (SOP) to grant diplomatic approval for foreign warships, aircraft, and research vessels to traverse Sri Lankan waters, airspace, and to call at local ports, to a number of foreign missions in Sri Lanka, following a comprehensive process.

The delay in enforcing the new SOP and Sri Lanka’s decision to grant permission for the Chinese geophysical and seismic survey ship Shi Yan 6 to call port in Colombo in October, had drawn strong condemnation and diplomatic pressure from India and the United States (US), among others as the geo-political tensions in the Indian Ocean continue to rise. India, the US and others have repeatedly expressed concern to Sri Lanka about increased Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean region and the presence of marine research vessels, of which several have called on Sri Lankan ports, despite their objections. President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Government have maintained that any ship’s visit and granting permission is Sri Lanka’s sovereign right, and that the island nation will not let the Indian interest be harmed.  

The Government’s consideration on a moratorium comes as Sri Lanka enters a pivotal year, 2024, which will likely see Presidential, General, and Local Government elections. 2024, will also bring an International Monetary Fund (IMF) review and is expected to be a “year of recovery” following the unprecedented economic crisis, which saw the troubled island nation declare bankruptcy last year.

“The Government is considering a year-long moratorium on granting permission for foreign research vessels to conduct surveys in Sri Lankan waters or her Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The arrival of these ships creates serious diplomatic tensions, and it (2024) is an election year. Such ship visits can be highly disruptive for the region and Sri Lanka, because of the pressure the Government maycome under. So, a moratorium, for one year or perhaps more, is being considered,” a senior government minister told The Daily Morning on terms of anonymity.

It is reliably learnt that the Government began considering the moratorium option following a request by China to allow another research vessel, the Xiang Yang Hong 3 to call on Sri Lankan ports by early 2024 to conduct a survey. A senior defence official told The Daily Morning that the Government had turned down the diplomatic request for the Xiang Yang Hong 3 to conduct a survey in Sri Lanka’s maritime domain.

With political changes happening in the Maldives, and the new Government of the archipelago tipped to lean more towards China, it is possible that Xiang Yang Hong 3 may redirect its survey efforts toward the smaller Indian Ocean nation. It is noteworthy that the Maldives was absent at the recent Colombo Security Dialogue held in Mauritius, and may not renew an oceanography agreement it has in place with India. Maldives’ possible exit from the Colombo security dialogue raises concerns about the regional security architecture, one that India has put considerable effort to build over the years. 

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