Days after Sri Lanka deferred the visit of a Chinese military vessel following concerns raised by India, Colombo Saturday made a U-turn and allowed the ship to dock at the Hambantota port from August 16 to 22.
The Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese research and survey vessel, was expected to dock earlier from August 11 to 17, but this was deferred after India raised the issue with Lanka.
In an official statement, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said that after it had asked China to defer the visit of the vessel, it had engaged in extensive consultations at a high level through diplomatic channels “with all parties concerned”, with a view to resolving the matter in a spirit of friendship, mutual trust and constructive dialogue, taking into account the interests of all parties concerned, and in line with the “principle of sovereign equality of states”.
The Ministry said China had approached Sri Lanka on August 12. “Having considered all material in place, on 13 August 2022, the clearance to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China was conveyed for the deferred arrival of the vessel from 16-22 August 2022.”
Reiterating Sri Lanka’s policy of “cooperation and friendship with all countries”, the Foreign Ministry said: “Security and cooperation in the neighbourhood is of utmost priority. It is Sri Lanka’s intention to safeguard the legitimate interests of all countries, in keeping with its international obligations.”
The Ministry said it was deeply appreciative of the support and understanding of all countries to Lanka, especially during its severe economic crisis. It also sought further information and material that could assist in consultations on the matter.
Earlier, announcing that it had asked China to defer docking of the ship, Lanka had said it was doing so “in light of certain concerns” raised with it, without naming India.
The ship was since awaiting clearance to enter from its location 600 nautical miles east of Hambantota. Ships like Yuan Wang 5 can track satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile 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.
New Delhi is concerned about the possibility of the ship’s tracking systems attempting to snoop on Indian installations while on its way to the Sri Lankan port.
Hambantota, a strategically important deep-sea port, where the ship is headed, was developed by Lanka mostly using loans from Beijing.
Addressing the issue before Sri Lanka announced deferment of the docking, India had said it carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests. “We are aware of the reports of a proposed visit by this (China) vessel to Hambantota in August,” Ministry of External Affairs official spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said in New Delhi last month.
On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite so-called security concerns” to pressure Sri Lanka. On Friday, India rejected China’s “insinuations” that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the planned visit by the Chinese research vessel, but asserted that it will take decisions based on its security concerns.
India has traditionally taken a stern view of Chinese military vessels in the Indian Ocean and has raised the matter with Sri Lanka in the past.
The ties between India and Sri Lanka had earlier come under strain over Colombo’s permission to a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to dock at one of its ports in 2014.
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It was in 2017 that Colombo leased the Hambantota port to China Merchant Port Holdings for 99 years, after Sri Lanka was unable to keep its loan repayment commitments.
China is the main creditor of Sri Lanka in investment in infrastructure. Debt restructuring of Chinese loans is key to the island’s success in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
India, on the other hand, has been Sri Lanka’s lifeline in the ongoing economic crisis, extending economic assistance of nearly USD 4 billion.