India-China tensions: the Yuan Wang 5 docks at the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka

Hambantota port workers enthusiastically welcomed the Yuan Wang 5, waving flags of Sri Lanka and China as the ship displayed a large banner reading, “Hello Sri Lanka.”

However, the ship’s arrival appears to have heightened tensions between New Delhi and Beijing, which have both spent billions of dollars on development and deals with Sri Lanka, an island of 22 million people on a highway key business.

The Yuan Wang 5 originally sought permission to dock at the port last week but the visit was delayed after concerns were raised over the vessel’s presence, although India denied put pressure on Colombo.

China says the ship is used for scientific research, but the US Department of Defense says the ship is under the command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and is capable of tracking satellite launches and missiles.

On Saturday, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said the government had engaged in “broad” consultations with “all parties concerned” with a view “to resolving the matter in the spirit of friendship, mutual trust and constructive dialogue. “.

He said the ship had been allowed to dock on the condition that no scientific research be conducted in Sri Lankan waters.

Chinese research and survey vessel Yuan Wang 5 arrives at Hambantota Port on August 16, 2022.

What is the ship?

The ship’s arrival at the port of Hambantota was always going to be controversial – China leased the port from Sri Lanka in 2017 for 99 years after Colombo failed to pay debts related to the construction of the facility.

At the time, the deal raised fears that it would give China access to a key shipping route, placing it within India’s traditional sphere of influence. And the presence of a ship packed with cutting-edge technology has made Sri Lanka’s neighbors nervous.

According to a US Department of Defense report released last year, the ship is under the command of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), “a theater command-level organization created to centralize space PLA’s strategic, cyber, electronics, information, communications, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities.”

“The SSF also operates Yuan Wang space support vessels that track satellite and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches,” the US report said.

The crew of Chinese scientific research vessel Yuan Wang 5 wave their country's national flags from the vessel after arriving at Hambantota International Port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka on Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and former director of operations for the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said New Delhi’s concern about the ship’s presence in Sri Lanka was likely due to its surveillance capabilities.

“Espionage is not its primary mission … its primary mission is tracking and monitoring PRC rocket launches, telemetry and the status of satellites … but that same capability can and often is used to monitor other countries’ satellite operations, downlinks and missile telemetry,” he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the vessel was conducting scientific research “in accordance with international law”.

It “does not affect the security and economic interests of any country and should not be hindered by third parties,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

India-China tensions

The Yuan Wang 5 has become a symbol of rising tensions between India and China – both of which have financially supported Colombo as it weathers its worst financial crisis in decades.
India provided crucial help in Sri Lanka as it suffers from food, fuel and medicine shortages, lending $4 billion in lines of credit.

China is also a major creditor of Sri Lanka and is key to Sri Lanka’s efforts to restructure its debt in order to secure a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Relations between India and China have long been strained, although in recent years a prolonged military showdown along their common Himalayan border has claimed dozens of lives.
Meanwhile, India has approached the United States in an effort to balance China’s increasingly assertive position in the Indo-Pacific. In October, Washington and New Delhi will hold a joint military exercise within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of India’s disputed border with China, further tightening ties between the two nuclear powers.

In late July, Indian Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi expressed concern over the Chinese ship’s visit to Sri Lanka, telling reporters that “the government is carefully monitoring any developments affecting security and economic interests of India and take all necessary measures to protect them”.

Indian Navy Deputy Chief of Staff Satishkumar Namdeo Ghormade & Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay accompanied by dignitaries as India gifts the island nation with a reconnaissance aircraft on August 15, 2022 .

On August 5, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo postponing the arrival of Yuan Wang 5 “until further consultations” have been held on this matter.

Three days later, without naming India, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang said the “brutal interference” in Sri Lanka’s foreign relations was “an act of taking advantage of someone one when it is in danger, which is contrary to the basic norms of international relations”. .”

India later dismissed claims that its concerns were the cause of the delay in docking the ship, with Bagchi telling reporters last week: “Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own decisions entirely. independence”.

On Monday, India demonstrated the strength of its commitment to Sri Lanka, gifting the island nation with a reconnaissance aircraft at a ceremony attended by the Sri Lankan president.

The aircraft donation “underscores the cooperation” between maritime neighbors, India’s External Affairs Ministry said in a statement.

China’s influence in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka presents the ideal transshipment hub for Chinese imports and exports – and remains “very strategic for India”, said Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Sri Lanka was “caught between a rock and a hard place”, he said, referring to India and China in no particular order.

“The Chinese had put pressure on them. The Indians had put pressure on them. And they can’t afford to lose aid. All small and economically weak countries will face these challenges if they find themselves in a tough neighborhood.”

China has invested in Sri Lanka for decades while much of the international community has held back.

Crisis in Sri Lanka: how to fix a broken country?

While many Western countries have refused to fund Sri Lanka over alleged human rights abuses during a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009, China has provided economic aid to the former Rajapaksa government, said Ganeshan Wignaraja, senior research associate at UK think tank, ODI Global.

“Sri Lanka then thought it could use China as a vehicle for infrastructure-driven economic development,” he said.

Between 2005 and 2017, China almost spent $15 billion in Sri Lanka, but as the island nation’s economic fortunes waned, it struggled to repay its debt and the countries agreed on the long-term port deal.

Wignaraja said that by sending the Yuan Wang 5 to the port of Hambantota, he was testing the limits of this agreement.

“China was testing the terms of the lease agreement by sending a craft that has satellites on board and has a very advanced capability,” Wignaraja said.

CNN’s Brad Lendon contributed reporting.

Leave a Comment