Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang 5 docked at Hambantota port in Sri Lanka

Port workers at Hambantota greeted the Yuan Wang 5 enthusiastically, waving Sri Lankan and Chinese flags, while the ship displayed a large “Hello Sri Lanka” banner.

However, the ship’s arrival appears to have exacerbated tensions between New Delhi and Beijing, who have spent billions of dollars on development and business with Sri Lanka, an island of 22 million people that sits on a key trade route.

The Yuan Wang 5 had originally sought permission to dock at the port last week, but the visit was delayed after concerns were raised about the ship’s presence, though India refused. Putting any pressure on Colombo.

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

On Saturday, Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said the government was engaged in “extensive” consultations “with all parties concerned” “with a view to resolving the matter in a spirit of friendship, mutual trust and constructive dialogue”.

It said the ship was allowed to dock on the condition that it does not conduct any scientific research in Sri Lankan waters.

What is a ship?

Ship arrivals at the Hambantota port are always controversial — China leased the port from Sri Lanka for 99 years in 2017 after Colombo failed to pay debts related to the construction of the facility.

At the time, the deal raised concerns that it would give China access to a key shipping lane and place it within India’s traditional sphere of influence. And the presence of a ship loaded with advanced technology has alarmed Sri Lanka’s neighbours.

According to a US Defense Department report published last year, the vessel is under the command of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), “a theater command-level organization established to focus the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, information, communications, and psychological warfare operations and capabilities.”

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

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

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

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

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

It “does not affect any country’s security and economic interests and should not be interfered with by third parties,” said spokesman Wang Wenbin.

India-China tension

The Yuan Wang 5 is a sign of rising tensions between India and China — both of which have financially supported Colombo as it experiences its worst financial crisis in decades.
India has provided critical aid to Sri Lanka, which is suffering from shortages of food, fuel and medicine, lending $4 billion.

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

Relations between India and China have long been tense, though a protracted military standoff along their shared Himalayan border has claimed dozens of lives in recent years.
Meanwhile, India has drawn closer to the United States in an effort to balance China’s increasingly assertive stance in the Indo-Pacific. In October, Washington and New Delhi will hold joint military exercises less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the disputed India-China border — further straining ties between the two nuclear-armed powers.

In late July, Indian affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi expressed concern over the Chinese ship’s visit to Sri Lanka, saying “the government will carefully monitor any development affecting India’s security and economic interests and take all necessary measures to protect them”.

Satish Kumar Namdev Ghormade, Deputy Chief of the Indian Navy & Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Bagle, along with dignitaries, India will gift a reconnaissance aircraft to the island nation on August 15, 2022.

On August 5, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo postponing the arrival of Yuan Wang 5 “pending further consultations”.

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 when they are in danger, which is against the basic norms of international relations”. .”

India later denied that its concerns were the reason for the delay in the ship’s docking, with Bagchi telling reporters last week that “Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation and takes its own independent decisions.”

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

India’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the gift of the aircraft “underlines cooperation” between the maritime neighbours.

Chinese influence in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka presents an ideal trans-shipment hub for Chinese imports and exports — and is “very strategic for India,” said Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Sri Lanka is “caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said, mentioning 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 any aid. All small and economically weak countries have to face these challenges if they’re in a tough neighborhood.”

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

Sri Lanka crisis: How do you fix a broken country?

Ganesan Wignarajah, a senior research fellow at a British think tank, said China provided financial aid to the former Rajapaksa government as many Western countries withheld funding to Sri Lanka over alleged human rights abuses during the decades-long civil war that ended in 2009. ODI Global.

“Sri Lanka thinks China can be used as a vehicle for infrastructure-led economic development,” he said.

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

Vignarajah said it was testing the boundaries of that agreement by sending the Yuan Wang 5 to the Hambantota port.

“China is testing the terms of the lease agreement by sending a craft that has satellites and has more advanced capabilities,” Vignarajah said.

CNN’s Brad Landon contributed reporting.

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