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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.