Chinese ‘spy ship’ arrives in Sri Lanka near main Asia-Europe shipping route amid Indian concerns

A Chinese military survey vessel has docked at the Chinese-built port of Hambantota after a delay of several days due to opposition to India’s visit.

India has objected to the docking of the Yuan Wang 5, which analysts describe as a high-tech vessel for tracking objects in space, over concerns that China will use the port, near of the main Asia-Europe sea route, as a military base.

Sri Lanka – which needs support from India and China as it battles its worst economic crisis in decades – initially granted the ship permission for a five-day resupply stay in Hambantota , from August 11.

He then asked China to delay the ship’s arrival, citing the need for more consultations.

The Yuan Wang 5 will only dock for three days to refuel, food and other essentials, said a port official, who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak. to the media.

A Sri Lankan government minister said the island nation was working to ensure there was no friction between friendly countries.

“India has expressed its concerns and Sri Lanka has requested a postponement of the docking of the vessel until discussions can take place to resolve these issues,” Media Minister Bandula Gunawardana told reporters. .

“Even before that, ships from the United States, India and other countries came to Sri Lanka.

“We allowed these ships to come. In the same way, we allowed the Chinese ship to dock.”

The Yuan Wang family of ships serves both China’s missile force and its space program.(PA)

Beijing says ship does not interfere with any other country

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the Chinese vessel did not interfere with any other country.

“Yuan Wang 5 conducting maritime research activities…does not affect the security or economic interests of any country and third parties should not interfere with it,” he said in Beijing.

Foreign security analysts say the Yuan Wang 5 is one of China’s latest-generation space tracking vessels, used to monitor launches of satellites, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Pentagon says the Yuan Wang ships are operated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force.

This family of warships serves both China’s missile force and its space program, which is run by the PLA, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.

Previous official Chinese media reports have described PLA officers serving in command posts aboard the Yuan Wang-class ships, which may also have civilians in their crews.

Last weekend, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said China had agreed the ship would retain its identification systems and not carry out any research activities in Sri Lankan waters.

Two large ships are moored at the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka in this file photo from 2013.
China has loaned Sri Lanka billions of dollars for development projects, some of which have been criticized as having little practical use, such as the port of Hambantota.(Provided: Wikimedia Commons)

New Delhi views China’s growing influence with suspicion

Sri Lanka has branded the Yuan Wang 5 a “scientific research vessel”, but there are fears in India that the ship could be used to monitor the region, with several media outlets calling it a “dual-purpose spy vessel”.

“The Yuan Wang 5 is a powerful scouting vessel whose significant air range – around 750 kilometers – means that several ports in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh could be on China’s radar,” wrote the Indian Express newspaper.

Prior to the ship’s arrival, India gave the Sri Lankan Air Force a Dornier 228 aircraft for maritime surveillance.

At a handover ceremony, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe called it the start of maritime surveillance cooperation between his country’s Navy and Air Force and the Indian Navy.

The closely watched developments surrounding the ship underscore the competing interests of regional giants India and China in the small island nation.

For more than a decade, Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean and along one of the busiest shipping routes has seen the two countries compete for influence.

Over the years, Beijing has been widely seen as having the upper hand with its free-flowing loans and infrastructure investments.

But Sri Lanka’s economic collapse proved an opportunity for India to gain influence, as New Delhi stepped in with massive financial and material aid to its neighbour.

Three women wearing face masks in front of a crowd of protesters hold up pink cardboard signs saying "I have to go back home"
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis was born out of the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the tourism-dependent economy, rising oil prices and the government’s populist tax cuts.(ABC News)

Sri Lanka seeks support from India and China

In recent months, India has provided crucial aid, including food, fuel, medicine and cooking gas.

At the same time, China’s agreement to restructure its infrastructure loans to Sri Lanka is vital for the country to achieve a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund.

“Given the region’s geopolitical dynamics and Sri Lanka’s high vulnerability on the economic front, Sri Lanka is playing with two fires diplomatically,” said international affairs analyst Ranga Kalansooriya.

China has lent Sri Lanka billions of dollars for development projects, some of which have been criticized as having little practical use.

These include the Port of Hambantota, built with Chinese money under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his home region, although the project was rejected by a panel of experts.

When the port failed to generate enough revenue to repay the loan, Sri Lanka was forced in 2017 to cede the facility and thousands of acres of surrounding land to Beijing for 99 years, allowing for China to gain a foothold in the country just across the Indian coast.

Mr Kalansooriya said that although Sri Lanka has not been able to sideline the two regional powers, President Ranil Wickremesinghe is tasked with not only saving the country’s economy but also maintaining a diplomatic balance .

AP/Reuters

Mary I. Bruner