Sri Lanka’s growing strategic importance in the Indian Ocean Ring and Indo-Pacific region is becoming increasingly apparent with the arrival of a significant number of warships to the country between 2020 and the present. Continuing this trend, the Indian submarine, INS Vagir (S41), named after the sandfish, made a significant visit to the Colombo Port in Sri Lanka on 19 June 2023. This visit highlights the presence of six warships, including the submarine, from India during the first half of 2023, aligning with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s concept of the Indian Ocean Ring.
Over the past few years, Sri Lanka has seen a higher influx of warships and submarines, compared to other countries in the region, owing to its strategic importance for powerful nations. The increase in the presence of warships and maritime security can be attributed to Sri Lanka’s partnership with China for strategic development following the end of the war. This development has raised concerns not only for India but for Japan, France and the US, as China’s influence in the Indian Ocean Ring poses a potential maritime security threat. These countries are in an attempt to curtail China’s dominance in the both Indian Ocean as well and in the Indo-Pacific region.
China also has its port operation at the CICT in the Colombo Port which is taken on 35-year lease and is currently involved in developing the East Container Terminal as well.
Despite India’s apprehension about China’s presence in the Indian Ocean Ring, Sri Lanka’s decision to engage with China, for its development needs, has made it difficult for India to counteract. In response, to China’s String of pearls, India has implemented various maritime security measures to safeguard its interests and those of the Indo-Pacific region. Initiatives such as Modi’s Sagarmala, Neighbourhood First Policy and active participation in the US-led Quad alliance demonstrate India’s commitment to protecting its interests.
India has also taken steps to establish a security framework for the Indian Ocean region by conducting over twenty annual Malabar naval exercises involving the United States and Japan. These measures reflect India’s recognition of the need to counterbalance China’s influence in the region and safeguard its own security interests. Given that South Asia and the Indian Ocean serve as India’s first line of defence against potential invasions, maintaining influence and strong relationships with neighbouring countries positions India as a regional power.
The submarine INS Vagir arrived and remained stationed in the waters from 19 to 22 June 2023, while already a Pakistan Navy Ship Tippu Sultan was here on a goodwill mission and she arrived on 19 June and departed from Port of Colombo on the 20 June 2023.
While the Pakistani war ship was in Sri Lanka a French Naval Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) Ship, Dupuy de Lôme arrived at the Port of Colombo on a formal visit on 21 June and it would leave around 26 June 2023. Pakistan said it was manifestation of common desire to cooperate as historically both nations have demonstrated to standby each other in times of need.
The French Signals Intelligence/Satellite Tracking vessel, that could be described as a spy ship, is a102.40m-long Electromagnetic Research Vessel with a crew of 107. The ship is designed for the collection of signals and communications beyond enemy lines. It entered the service of the French Navy in April 2006. It is commanded by Commander Augustin Blanchet. They are currently here in Sri Lanka.
This could be the second surveillance vessel after China’s Yuan Wang-class of tracking ships are used for tracking and support of satellite and intercontinental ballistic missiles by the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force of the People’s Republic of China that arrived amidst India’s rejection.
The Chinese spy ship arrived in August 2022, despite India’s objections. Following the arrival of the Chinese vessel, India deployed several warships, including a submarine, on a friendly bilateral visit to Sri Lanka. It is a common occurrence for India to send eight to ten warships to Sri Lanka each year, given their close proximity.
Furthermore, on 22 June, a Japanese warship named Ikazuchi (DD-107) from the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force made a formal visit to the Port of Colombo. This destroyer, measuring 150.5 metres in length, was manned by a crew of 207. This visit by the Ikazuchi follows a previous goodwill visit by one of the largest vessels of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force, the Kaga (DDH-184), along with the Ikazuchi in September 2020. The Indian submarine’s arrival was due to India’s International Day of Yoga (IDY) combined by the Ocean Ring of Yoga. Yoga was held in close proximity to the submarine in the Colombo Port. Visitors gathered to see the submarine to experience the connection between the Indian Ocean Ring and yoga.
The IDY was initiated by Prime Minister Modi and designated by the UN General Assembly in December 2014 and it promotes the Indian Ocean Ring and India has declared Sri Lanka as being of strategic importance as she sits in the central location within this Ring. India deployed 19 Indian Navy ships the world over to commemorate Yoga Day, including showcasing the IOR and maintaining its close ties with its immediate neighbouring countries and prioritising regional cooperation in the Indian Ocean.
Pakistan’s war ship Tippu Sultan left the shores on 20 June and the ship was one of the four Type 054A/P Class Frigates built by Hudong Zhonghua Shipbuilding, China. It is a multi-mission frigate fitted with highly sophisticated and state-of
-the art weapons/ sensors including long range air surveillance radar, 3D radar, vertical launched SAMs, towed sonar/ decoys, long range super Sonic SSM, torpedoes and advanced EW systems. These systems provide the PN with enhanced offensive-defensive combat capabilities to deter all forms of maritime threats. The ship was commissioned by the Pakistan Navy on 10 May 2023 at Shanghai, China. Captain Jawad Hussain TI (M) T Bt PN assumed command as the first Commanding Officer of the ship.
On 3 November 2022, a detachment of ships from Russia’s Pacific Fleet, led by the flagship missile cruiser Varyag, entered the area of responsibility south of Sri Lanka. Additionally, in December 2020, a group of warships from the Russian Pacific Fleet, including a submarine, concluded their business call at Sri Lanka. This group consisted of the Pacific Fleet’s Order of Nakhimov Guards Missile Cruiser Flagship Varyag, the large anti-submarine warfare ship Admiral Panteleyev, and the medium sea tanker Pechenga. The visit took place at the Port of Trincomalee. It began on 30 November.
In March 2020, a warship from the Russian Baltic Fleet also visited Sri Lanka as part of an anti-piracy deployment to the Indian Ocean. The warship’s combat team conducted drills, including search operations for a notional enemy submarine using a Ka-27 helicopter. The anti-terror squads on the ships and vessels also practised various scenarios of combating piracy in the Indian Ocean.
This year, in support of the International Day of Yoga (IDY) 2023, Indian Navy vessels deployed in the Indian Ocean will be visiting several foreign ports, including Phuket (Thailand), Chattogram (Bangladesh), Jakarta (Indonesia), Safaga (Egypt), Mombasa (Kenya), Muscat (Oman), Toamasina (Madagascar), Colombo (Sri Lanka), and Dubai (UAE). Ships such as Kiltan, Shivalik, Chennai, Sunayna, Tarkash, Trishul, Vagir, Brahmaputra, and Sumitra will participate in promoting the theme of IDY 23, ‘“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’.
According to former Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, Jayanath Colambage, numerous warships from different countries have visited Sri Lankan ports. Between 2009 and 2017 alone, a total of 398 warships made visits to Sri Lanka.
In the first six months of 2023, there have already been 10 warships that arrived, including six from India, and one each from China, France, Japan, and Pakistan among other countries totalling to 16.
Given Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the middle of the Indian Ocean Ring, it is expected that the country will continue to attract the attention of the same countries listed here in the article, resulting in an increase in the number of warships visiting to Sri Lankan ports. Sri Lanka’s position in the show of power struggle among powerful nations is likely to remain significant at all time.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).