India-China tensions: Yuan Wang 5 docks at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port

Port workers in Hambantota gave Yuan Wang 5 an enthusiastic welcome, waving the flags of Sri Lanka and China, while the ship displayed a large banner that read: “Hello Sri Lanka.”

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

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

China says the ship is being 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 had engaged in “broad” consultations with “all parties concerned” with “a view to resolving the matter in the spirit of friendship, mutual trust a constructive conversation.”

It said the ship was given permission to land on the condition that no scientific research was conducted in Sri Lankan waters.

What is the ship?

The ship’s arrival at the Hambantota port 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 facility’s construction.

At the time, the deal raised concerns 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 full of advanced technology made Sri Lanka’s neighbors nervous.

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

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

The crew of the Chinese scientific research ship 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 is likely due to its capabilities. in tracking.

“Espionage is not her primary mission … her primary mission is satellite tracking and tracking PRC rocket launches, telemetry, and satellite status … but both capabilities can and often are used to track satellite, downlink and missile operations of other countries. telemetry,” he said.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday that the ship 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 interfered with by third parties,” said spokesman Wang Wenbin.

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 has provided crucial aid to Sri Lanka as it suffers from food, fuel and medicine shortages, lending $4 billion in credit lines.

China is also a major creditor of Sri Lanka, and is central to 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 in recent years a protracted military dispute along their Himalayan border has claimed dozens of lives.
Meanwhile, India has drawn closer to the United States in a bid to balance China’s growing assertiveness 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 relations between the two nuclear-armed powers.

In late July, India’s Ministry of Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi expressed concern over the Chinese ship’s visit to Sri Lanka, telling reporters that “the government is carefully monitoring any development with security and economic interests of India and taking all necessary steps to safeguard them.”

Satishkumar Namdeo Ghormade, Vice Chief of Naval Staff & Gopal Baglay, Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, along with dignitaries, as India gifted the island nation a reconnaissance aircraft 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 “until further consultations” are made on the matter.

Three days later, without naming India, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang said that “the brutal interference” in Sri Lanka’s foreign relations was “an act of exploiting a person when they are in risk, which is against the basic norms of international relations. .”

India later rejected claims that its concerns were the cause of the delay in the ship’s docking, with Bagchi telling reporters last week, “Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and is doing its own independent decisions.”

On Monday, India showed the strength of its commitment to Sri Lanka, gifting the island nation a reconnaissance aircraft in a ceremony attended by the President of Sri Lanka.

The gift of an aircraft “emphasizes cooperation” between the maritime neighbors, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

China’s influence in Sri Lanka

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

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

“The Chinese put pressure on them. The Indians put pressure on them. And they can’t afford to lose any help. All small and weak economies will face these challenges if they are in a difficult place.”

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

Crisis in Sri Lanka: How do you fix a broken country?

As many Western countries withheld funding to Sri Lanka over alleged human rights abuses during its decade-long civil war, which ended in 2009, China has provided economic aid to former Rajapaksa government, said Ganeshan Wignaraja, senior research associate at the British think tank, ODI Global.

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

Between 2005 and 2017, China spent nearly $15 billion in Sri Lanka, but as the island nation’s economy weakened, it struggled to service its debt and the countries agreed to long-term port deals.

Wignaraja said by sending Yuan Wang 5 to Hambantota port, it is testing the boundaries of that deal.

“China is testing the terms of the lease agreement by sending a vessel with satellites on board and with high capabilities,” Wignaraja said.

CNN’s Brad Lendon contributed reporting.