A Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship will dock at Hambantota port on Sri Lanka’s southern coast for a week beginning August 16, PTI reported on Saturday (August 13), quoting sources. Sri Lanka, which had earlier asked China to postpone the arrival of the hi-tech vessel following concerns raised by India, cleared it for docking on Saturday, the report said.
Hambantota port is a commercially unviable project that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa built in his home district with borrowed Chinese money, which the government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were forced to hand to China on a 99-year lease in 2017 against a debt of $1.1 billion which they were unable to repay. Sri Lanka also handed over 15,000 acres of land around the port to the Chinese. Sri Lankan officials had said at the time that their total debt to China was about $8 billion.
The ship is a Chinese research and survey vessel called ‘Yuan Wang 5’. China uses its Yuan Wang class ships to track satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches. China has seven of these tracking ships, which 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 last month. It was also recently involved in maritime monitoring of the launch of China’s Tiangong space station’s first lab module.
According to the website of the Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka (BRISL), [ https://brisl.org/yuan-wang-5-visit-to-hambantota-and-china-space-program/ ] the development of China’s Yuan Wang class ships was proposed in 1965 by Premier Zhou Enlai, and was approved by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1968. The Yuan Wang 1, 2, 3, and 4 vessels tracked the launch of the Shenzhou spacecraft in November 1999 from four points in the world’s oceans, and the Yuan Wang 7 was used for the launch of the Shenzhou 11 and Tiangong 2 space lab manned mission in 2016.
And why is this ship headed to Hambantota?
As news of the ship heading to Hambantota emerged at the beginning of this month, the BRISL had said that the Yuan Wang 5 would enter the port on August 11, and would likely leave on August 17 after replenishment. According to the August 13 PTI report, the ship was located 600 nautical miles east of Hambantota, and has now been rescheduled to enter the port on August 16.
“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 had said on its website earlier. It had 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.”
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 Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said earlier: “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, had 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.”
On August 8, the Chinese foreign ministry had said it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called “security concerns” to pressure Sri Lanka”. On August 12, Bagchi, answering questions from reporters, said: “…We reject the insinuations… Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own independent decisions… With regard to our security concerns…look, this is a sovereign right of each country. We will make the best judgment in our own interest. This naturally takes into account the prevailing situation in the region, especially in our border areas…”
The deep-sea port, the second-largest in Sri Lanka, 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 was largely funded by China, and its takeover in 2017 was described by The New York Times in an investigative report as “one of the most vivid examples of China’s ambitious use of loans and aid to gain influence around the world — and of its willingness to play hardball to collect”. China has helped finance at least 35 ports around the world in the past decade, the report, which appeared in 2018, said.
The NYT report quoted unnamed Indian officials as expressing the fear that “Sri Lanka is struggling so much that the Chinese government may be able to dangle debt relief in exchange for its military’s use of assets like the Hambantota port — though the final lease agreement forbids military activity there without Sri Lanka’s invitation”. That long anticipated economic collapse of Sri Lanka took place this year, and drove the Rajapaksa brothers out of power.
“The only way to justify the investment in Hambantota is from a national security standpoint — that they will bring the People’s Liberation Army in,” The NYT report quoted India’s former foreign secretary and national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, as saying.