Chinese navy ship docks in Sri Lanka despite Indian and US pressure

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A Chinese navy ship at the center of a argument docked at a port in southern Sri Lanka on Tuesday, marking a small triumph for Beijing over India and the United States.

The Yuan Wang 5 arrived before 8 a.m. Tuesday and will stay there for three days, according to the Hambantota International Port Group. The ship, which is believed to have carried 2,000 sailors, was welcomed in a traditional Sri Lankan ceremony attended by Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong and Sri Lankan lawmakers. Footage from the event showed the dignitaries seated on a red carpet in front of the docked Chinese military vessel as its crew held a huge red banner along a deck that read: “Hello Sri Lanka, long live Sri Lanka – the friendship with China”.

Indian and US officials had raised concerns about the political optics of a Chinese navy ship docked at Hambantota International Port, which the Sri Lankan government had leased from state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings in 2017 after Sri Lanka failed to repay its debts to China. The port transfer was condemned by the United States as a prime example of China’s harmful lending practices and growing influence over the island nation – allegations China has vehemently denied.

The port is also seen as a potential strategic anchor for the Chinese Navy to project its power in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. India has warned in recent weeks that the Yuan Wang 5, a spacecraft that would be unarmed but equipped with advanced sensors, could spy on Indian defense installations. India said it would take necessary countermeasures to safeguard national security.

Indian officials have also argued that New Delhi has provided substantial financial aid to Sri Lanka this year – around $4 billion – as the Sri Lankan economy went into freefall. They said Sri Lanka should deny the Chinese vessel entry into a politically sensitive port so close to India. The bankrupt island nation, which is seeking to restructure its debts, counts China and India among its creditors.

“When a small, bankrupt country like Sri Lanka gives New Delhi a diplomatic slap in the face by welcoming a Chinese surveillance vessel into its commercial port of Hambantota, it is a stark reminder of both India’s inept foreign policy and declining influence in its strategic backyard”. Brahma Chellaney, former member of India’s National Security Advisory Council, said Tuesday on Twitter.

On Monday, less than a day before the Chinese ship’s arrival in Hambantota, the Indian military donated two surveillance planes to Sri Lanka as a sign of friendship.

Under pressure from India, Sri Lanka asked China last week to postpone the arrival of the ship. Beijing responded angrily and accused other countries of interfering in its relations with Sri Lanka.

Senior Sri Lankan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private government-to-government talks, said on Tuesday the Chinese were “adamant in their insistence” on the ship docking. The Yuan Wang 5 was originally scheduled to arrive on August 11 but was delayed while Sri Lankan officials negotiated with the various governments.

Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Sri Lanka had “engaged in extensive high-level consultations through diplomatic channels with all parties concerned” before granting final clearance.

Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to Russia, said Sri Lanka could expect an angry reaction from the Indian government, which has long suspected that the port of Hambantota could possibly be used by China for military purposes. civilians and military.

The arrival of a Chinese military vessel “cannot escape a response from the region’s other superpower”, he said. “There will be a response from India, which may come back to the economic aid given to Sri Lanka, or something more assertive.”

Shih reported from New Delhi.

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