The Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry has asked China to “defer” the arrival of the Yuan Wang 5, a military vessel, at its southern port of Hambantota.
Clearances for the Yuan Wang-class vessel to berth at Hambantota port were given by the Foreign Ministry on July 12, a day before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was driven out of office by a people’s movement, was expected to resign as he had announced.
On Friday, the Foreign Ministry sent a communication to the Chinese embassy in Colombo, requesting that the arrival date of Yuan Wang 5 “be deferred until further consultations are made on this matter”.
With that, a matter that raised questions in Delhi about the motives of the Sri Lankan government in welcoming the ship, has blown over, at least for now.
But concerns remain in Delhi over the language of the note verbale, or “third party note” as it is called in Sri Lanka, which suggests that the issue is still open for discussion.
India has poured in financial and material assistance to Sri Lanka to the tune of $4 billion since January, and has also been hand-holding it in its discussions with the IMF for a package to help recover from the collapse of its economy. Delhi was shocked to learn that the government in Colombo had given clearances for the Chinese military vessel to berth at Hambantota.
The matter first came to light through a seemingly innocuous mention on the website of BRISL (Belt and Road Initiative Sri Lanka) that the ship was calling over at the southern port.
Hambantota Port was developed with loans from Beijing. In 2017, the Sri Lankan government leased the port to China Merchants Port Holdings Company, a Hong Kong-based shipping company, for a period of 99 years.
Over the last week, Delhi conveyed more than once that it had serious concerns about the planned arrival of the ship, and was in constant talks with the Sri Lankan government on the issue.
At first, Colombo sought to give assurances that it was a “research” ship for development activities, and was only stopping over for bunkering, for a week, from August 11 to 17.
But India conveyed that this did nothing to allay its concerns over the vessel, one of six tracking ships in the Yuan Wang class, used by the People’s Liberation Army to monitor satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Bristling with satellite antennas and other equipment, these large vessels form part of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force. A foothold for it in Hambantota would make several ports and other sensitive facilities in south India vulnerable, as also any movement by Indian Navy ships, officials said.
With its monitoring equipment, the Yuan Wang 5 vessel could snoop on many of India’s southern ports and sensitive facilities from Sri Lankan waters.
“Spy” ship, officials said, was a misnomer for the vessel, and that it was in fact a dual purpose strategic platform, the likes of which had not been sent by any country into these waters before.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government had conveyed to Delhi that the permission was given by the previous government. The Foreign Ministry communication to the Chinese embassy mentions that clearances for the ship to arrive at Hambantota were given on July 12. The Sri Lankan government was in complete disarray at the time. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was then in hiding, plotting his escape from the country. He was said to have arrived at a military base near Katunayake International Airport, Sri Lanka’s main airport, in preparation to leave.
Other than the Presidency, Rajapaksa also held charge of the Defence Ministry, while the Foreign Ministry was then under G L Peiris. Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister then – Gotabaya would make him acting President the next day – but need not have been in the decision-making on the Chinese ship. The then Ports and Shipping Minister had been suspended following a corruption investigation.
Official sources in Colombo said the request from the Chinese side for clearances came in June. The sources maintained that while inputs were taken from the Defence Ministry, the final decision to give the clearance was made by the East Asia division of the Foreign Ministry, without scaling up the matter to the appropriate levels in the Ministry for further consultation.
No discussion was held with the South Asia division of the Ministry either, the sources said.