BEIJING, (Reuters): Sri Lanka released 37 Chinese fishermen detained by its navy, China’s Xinhua state news agency reported on Monday, putting a quick end to what could have been a test of the increasingly close ties between Beijing and Colombo.
Sri Lanka’s navy arrested the fishermen on Sunday night for fishing in Sri Lankan waters. They were aboard two trawlers off the country’s east coast town of Batticaloa, Xinhua said.
The Chinese embassy had “urged Sri Lankan authorities to handle the issue in accordance with the law, sort out the truth and release the Chinese fishermen as soon as possible,” Xinhua said in an earlier report.
Sri Lanka’s location astride an ancient trade route in the Indian Ocean makes it of strategic commercial and military interest to the United States, India and China.
China has been competing for influence in Sri Lanka with India, traditionally the island’s most important ally.
Beijing has lent Sri Lanka hundreds of millions of dollars to build ports, roads, railways, power plants and a new airport, fuelling speculation China wants military bases on the island, something denied by Sri Lanka. The incident was not the first involving Chinese fishermen this year. In July, a Russian coastguard ship detained 36 Chinese fishermen after firing at Chinese vessels that had been fishing for squid in Russia’s far eastern Primorsky region. Earlier this year, the Philippines and China were caught in a months-long standoff over Chinese fishing boats in disputed waters near Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe shaped reef in the South China Sea.