A 730-foot vessel, described by Indian media as a dual-use spy ship, sparked a frenzy in Asia, with New Delhi decrying its visit as it competes with Beijing for influence over crisis-ridden Sri Lanka.
After a delay of several days, it was scheduled to dock on August 11, the Yuan Wang 5 was finally welcomed by Chinese diplomats and port officials on Tuesday morning and is now docked at the Chinese-built port of Hambantota.
Described by analysts as a high-tech ship for tracking objects in space, the vessel’s position is said to have raised fears in India that China might use the port, near the main Asia-Europe shipping route, as a military base.
According to media reports, the Sri Lankan foreign ministry deferred the five-day replenishment visit, citing “certain concerns” which apparently referred to protests from New Delhi as well as Washington.
India’s foreign ministry, however, dismissed reports it pressured Sri Lanka to turn the Yuan Wang away.
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Arindam Bagchi, spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, said on Friday “we reject categorically the ‘insinuation’ and such statement about India”.
He added: “Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own independent decisions.”
But before the standoff, India gave Sri Lanka’s air force a Dornier 228 aircraft for maritime surveillance, which led Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe to announce the start of cooperation in maritime surveillance between his country’s navy and air force and India’s navy.
The move was understood as an informal treaty that New Delhi is now believed to view as being broken through Sri Lanka’s cooperation with China.
The Pentagon, which reportedly also voiced fears about the arrival of the ship, said in its latest report on China’s military the Yuan Wang vessels are operated by the Strategic Support Force of the People’s Liberation Army and warned they can be used to monitor satellite, rocket and ballistic missile launches.
Indian concerns that Beijing could use the Sri Lankan port as a military base date back to five years ago.
China is Sri Lanka’s largest creditor and has provided the island nation with billions of dollars for development projects in the past, including for the construction of the Hambantota port.
Colombo has since been struggling to repay the loans – so, in 2017, it handed over commercial activities at the $1.5bn port to a Chinese company for 99 years in exchange for debt relief.
Amid the diplomatic standoff, the Yuang Wang 5 reportedly reduced speed and turned around at sea.
After the Tuang Wang 5 was reportedly pushed to reduce speed and turn around at sea, China’s foreign ministry said it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called ‘security concerns’ to pressure Sri Lanka”.
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It also urged “the relevant parties to see China’s marine scientific research activities in a rational light and stop disrupting normal exchange and cooperation between China and Sri Lanka”.
Ultimately, Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry on Saturday announced it had permitted a port call.
The ministry said in a statement that it had “engaged in extensive consultations at a high level through diplomatic channels with all parties concerned”.
The vessel would be allowed to stay in Sri Lanka until August 22, it said, on the condition that it would keep its identification systems on and would not carry out any research activities in the country’s waters.
The ministry added that its intention was to “safeguard the legitimate interests of all countries” and was grateful for the support from partners at a time when Sri Lanka was trying to address its severe economic challenges.
A Sri Lankan government minister said the nation was working to ensure there was no friction between friendly countries.
Media Minister Bandula Gunawardana told reporters: “India had raised concerns and Sri Lanka requested a delay in the ship’s docking until discussions could be had to resolve these issues.
“Even before this, there have been ships from the US, India and other countries coming to Sri Lanka.
“We have allowed these ships to come. In the same way, we have allowed the Chinese ship to dock.”