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The curious story of Sri Lanka's detention of 37 Chinese fishermen over the last weekend portends a very interesting maritime future in the Indian Ocean.
On Sunday, the Sri Lankan navy had arrested 37 Chinese fishermen aboard two trawlers for illegal fishing. Within hours the Chinese embassy in Colombo demanded their immediate release.
The embassy statement "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".
Quoting the embassy officials on Monday, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said the 37 fishermen had been released. The Chinese embassy claim, however, was denied by the Sri Lankan navy.
A spokesman for the navy, quoted by the Reuters news agency, said on Monday that the fishermen were under custody and will be handed over to the police. "They are being held in Trincomalee," the spokesman said. "They will appear in court tomorrow and they are still on the boat."
On Tuesday morning, China
Daily published a report from its correspondent in Colombo confirming the release and adding more details about the fishing expedition.
Quoting embassy officials, the Daily reported that the 37 fishermen are employed by a Sri Lankan shipping company that recently bought the two trawlers.
The Sri Lankan navy confirmed that the two vessels, named YU 6177 and YU 6178, are registered with the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in Colombo. Both vessels had one Sri Lankan each on board.
The official permission, according to the navy, was only to fish beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Sri Lanka and not in its territorial waters where they were found operating and detained.
Reports from Sri lanka late Tuesday said the 37 Chinese fishermen were released by the navy. The two Sri Lankans were produced before a magistrate and bailed out for a lakh of rupees each. Colombo clearly did not want to escalate the incident to a diplomatic row with Beijing.
The incident, however, suggests that the subcontinent must prepare for an ever larger presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the regional waters. Who owns them might be a matter of legal detail.
The widespread coverage of the Lankan incident in the Chinese media reflects growing domestic pressures on China to protect the rapidly growing number of its citizens working abroad.
More than 5 million Chinese citizens are now working abroad and the numbers are likely to rise as Chinese project investment and other foreign economic activity expand rapidly. This month, new regulations to protect Chinese expatriate labour have come into effect.
Beijing is also paying greater attention to the safety and security of its workers as well as citizens travelling abroad for business or pleasure. In 2012, 60 million Chinese are likely head beyond national borders.
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up the Bureau of Consular Protection in 2007 and is expanding the capabilities and services offered by the bureau to its citizens abroad.
During 2006-10, China evacuated 6,000 citizens from various upheavals around the world. In 2011, China evacuated nearly 48,000 people mostly from Egypt, Libya and Japan.
Beijing's diplomatic missions mount relentless pressure on the host governments to act quickly in incidents like the one unfolding in Sri Lanka.
While Chinese fishermen become a regular feature in the waters of the subcontinent, the People's Liberation Army Navy continues to demonstrate the political will to operate globally.
A PLA navy training vessel named after Zheng He, the great Chinese admiral who mounted seven expeditions to the Indian Ocean six centuries ago, is well on its way to complete its second global goodwill voyage within a decade.
Zheng He, which left China's north-eastern port of Dalian in mid-April, arrived in Polynesia in the South Pacific after making port calls in Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Djibouti, Italy, Spain, Canada, Jamaica and Ecuador.
By the time it returns home via the South China Sea, Zheng He would have covered a distance of more than 30,000 nautical miles (55,560 km) in a period of five months.
Designed for long-distance voyage and built in 1987, the vessel can cruise 10,000 nautical miles without refuelling. A replica of Admiral Zheng He's original treasure ship is now under construction in Nanjing and expected to sail to the Indian Ocean in 2014.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
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