A Chinese navy vessel has arrived at a southern Sri Lankan port that Beijing leases from the government, prompting renewed security fears from India.
On Tuesday morning, the Yuan Wang 5 sailed into the Hambantota port, which was built by Beijing, and was welcomed by senior Sri Lankan and Chinese officials in a traditional ceremony that involved red carpet and a massive banner that read: “Hello Sri Lanka, Long Live Sri Lanka-China Friendship.”
Although the ship will only stay for a few days, the development has already sounded the alarm in India, which has viewed China’s rising influence in the Indian Ocean with suspicion. Analysts say the Yuan Wang’s moves will also be closely monitored by the US and western allies as they have long criticised Beijing’s dealings with Sri Lanka.
Officially, Sri Lanka has referred to the Yuan Wang 5 as a “scientific research ship”. “But the suspicion here in India is that despite Chinese commentators’ insistence it is civilian, it may actually have military functions,” said Prof Srikanth Kondapalli, dean of the school of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
On Tuesday, Indian news outlets remarked on the latest development. “The Yuan Wang 5 is a powerful tracking vessel whose significant aerial reach – reportedly around 750km – means that several ports in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh could be on China’s radar,” the Indian Express newspaper wrote.
Brahma Chellaney, a former member of India’s national security advisory board, said on Twitter: “When a small, bankrupt nation like Sri Lanka delivers a diplomatic slap to New Delhi by hosting a Chinese surveillance ship at its commercial port of Hambantota, it is a stunning reminder of both India’s feckless foreign policy and receding influence in its strategic back yard.”
The China ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, dismissed such concerns. “The marine scientific research conducted by the research ship Yuan Wang 5 conforms to international law and international common practice, and will not affect the security and economic interests of any country,” he told a news briefing on Tuesday.
Sri Lanka has in recent months been mired in serious economic trouble. Chinese loans account for about 10% of the nation’s total foreign debt. But since this year, India has also lent about $3.8bn to help Sri Lanka through its economic crisis.
China’s move in geopolitically-significant Sri Lanka highlights Colombo’s delicate diplomatic balance being caught in between big powers at a time of economic despair. It also came just a day after Delhi on Monday donated a maritime reconnaissance aircraft to Colombo. Delhi said the gesture was aimed at tackling multiple security challenges such as human and drug trafficking, as well as other crimes in its coastal waters more effectively.
The Indian foreign ministry spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, said last week that India was aware of the planned visit by the vessel and that it carefully monitors any development that affects its security and economic interests and would take all measures to safeguard them.
Delhi also “rejected insinuations” that Sri Lanka was pressured to delay the Chinese vessel. Colombo said it had “engaged in extensive consultations at a high level through diplomatic channels with all parties concerned” before granting the Chinese vessel the final clearance.