An incident between Sri Lanka and China that threatened to derail the cozy relations between the two countries has been resolved. And if India - Sri Lanka's neighbor and China's rival - had hoped that a spat between the two countries could bring them apart, those hopes are now dashed.
The incident involved two Chinese fishing boats that were seized off the east coast of Sri Lanka on Monday. According to the BBC, many Chinese fishermen are travelling farther and farther away from China to fish, due to the lack of fish closer to home. The boats were carrying 37 Chinese fishermen and two Sri Lankans. The men were detained by the Sri Lankan Navy. Many international disputes involving seized vessels drag on for weeks if not months, with accusations flying back and forth, but not in this case.
Sri Lanka has now reportedly handed over the 37 Chinese fishermen to the Chinese embassy in Colombo, just hours after the incident, and says that they were never arrested and were merely working as crew members on two Sri Lankan boats.
"The fault is not with the [Chinese] crew. The case is against the [Sri Lankan] owner now," Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya told Reuters. "We have handed over the Chinese crew to officials from the Chinese embassy."
From what is known of the incident, it seems clear Sri Lanka wishes to maintain its friendly ties with China. Sri Lanka is one of the few maritime countries in Asia that have no quarrel with an increasingly assertive China, and given Sri Lanka's close proximity to India, Beijing has every interest in keeping that relationship warm.
During the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers independence movement, China heavily supported the government, and even provided arms to fight the insurgents. The war now over, China has become Sri Lanka's largest source of foreign investment and aid.
India reportedly became increasingly nervous when Beijing announced in April that it plans to invest $50 billion in developing Sri Lanka's ports over the next 10 years. According to the BBC, Beijing may seek to install a naval facility on the island nation.
China, India, and the U.S. all became increasingly interested in Sri Lanka after the 25-year civil war ended in 2009. The island's location in the Indian Ocean is right in the middle of several major East-West trading routes. Beijing has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure projects since 2009, including a new airport, and most recently, a new $1.5 billion port in Hambantota.
Sri Lankan President Mahindra Rajapaksa has dismissed the rumors of China's military intentions, and told Foreign Policy that Sri Lanka "remains committed to the nation's historical non-alignment."