After trouble in the South and East China Seas, Chinese fisherman have caused new waves in the Indian Ocean. On Aug. 5, Sri Lanka’s Navy captured two Chinese fishing trawlers off the eastern coast of Arugambay in the Indian Ocean on charges of illegally entering sovereign waters. The 37 crew members, including two Sri Lankan nationals, were escorted by the Eastern Naval Command to Trincomalee Harbor where they were turned over to local police "for legal action."
China Daily‘s initial coverage of the arrests has been noticeably less dramatic than its typical response to maritime disputes. Early reports cited the Chinese embassy’s urging of "Sri Lankan authorities to handle the issue in accordance with the law, sort out the truth and release the Chinese fisherman as soon as possible."
In a bizarre twist, Chinese state news service Xinhua later announced the fisherman’s release, blaming the disturbance on a miscommunication and claiming locals had confused "Sri Lankan vessels as Chinese ones, due to the old Chinese logo on the body of the ship." Sri Lankan Navy officials initially denied that report, telling Reuters, that the fishermen would "appear in court tomorrow," but Xinhua seems to have predicted the inevitable and the crew was released to Chinese Embassy early this morning.
The incident comes as China looks to improve relations with the island nation. Strategically located in the northern Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has been courted by the United States, India and China as a commercial and military foothold since the government defeated rebel group Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a 25-year civil war and restoring the island as a viable trade partner. The Chinese government has funneled hundreds of millions into infrastructure projects in recent years, financing a variety of projects including a new airport and a heavily flawed power station. Though China watchers have speculated that Beijing intends to transform Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port into a naval base, President Mahinda Rajapaksa laughed off the rumors and insists he remains committed to the nation’s historical non-alignment.