India is closely monitoring the movement of a Chinese “spy ship” that is on its way to Sri Lanka and will dock at its Hambantota port around August 11. The vessel’s visit to the Lankan port comes at a time when the country is battling a severe economic crisis, and India is learnt to have already lodged a verbal protest against the ship’s visit.
The ‘Yuan Wang 5’, a Chinese research and survey vessel, is en route to Hambantota, a strategically important deep-sea port developed mostly using loans from Beijing.
‘Yuan Wang’-class ships are used to track satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches. China has around seven of these tracking ships that are capable of operating throughout the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. The ships supplement Beijing’s land-based tracking stations.
According to a US Department of Defence report, these space support ships are operated by the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), which is “a theater command-level organization established to centralize the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, information, communications, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities”.
The ‘Yuan Wang 5’ was built at China’s Jiangnan Shipyard and it entered service in September 2007. This 222-metre long and 25.2-metre wide vessel has state-of-the-art tracking technology onboard for transoceanic aerospace observation.
Its last monitoring mission was the launch of China’s ‘Long March 5B’ rocket. It was also recently involved in maritime monitoring of the launch of China’s Tiangong space station’s first lab module.
According to the Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka (BRISL), ‘Yuan Wang 5’ will enter Hambantota port on August 11 for a week and will likely leave on August 17 after replenishment.
“The Yuan Wang 5 will conduct satellite control and research tracking of China’s satellites in the North Western part of the Indian Ocean region through August and September,” BRISL said on its website.
It added: “The visit of ‘Yuan Wang 5’ to Hambantota Port will be an excellent opportunity for Sri Lanka and the regional developing nations to learn and develop their own space programmes.”
Why is India concerned about this development?
The ‘Yuan Wang 5’ is a powerful tracking vessel whose significant aerial reach — reportedly around 750 km — means that several ports in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh could be on China’s radar. Reports have claimed that several vital installations in South India could be under threat of being snooped upon.
Talking about the development last week, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said: “We are aware of reports of a proposed visit by this vessel to Hambantota in August…The government carefully monitors any development having a bearing on India’s security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them.”
In response, China’s foreign ministry in a statement reported by Reuters said: “China hopes that the relevant parties will view and report on China’s marine scientific research activities correctly and refrain from interfering with normal and legitimate maritime activities.”
The second-largest Lankan port, Hambantota sits on the route connecting Southeast Asia with Africa and West Asia. For China, it is an important stop in its Belt and Road Initiative. Its development has been largely funded by China, and in 2017, Colombo handed over its majority stake to a Chinese firm after failing to repay the burgeoning debt.
India and the US have repeatedly flagged concerns that Chinese control of this port could harm their interests in the Indian Ocean by becoming a hub for the PLA Navy. Security experts in India have often questioned its economic viability, while pointing out that it fits right into China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy to surround India in the Indian Ocean through increasing land and maritime footprint.
Hambantota’s proximity to India has the potential of allowing the Chinese navy just the maritime flex aimed at India that it has been seeking for long.