Suhasini Haidar and Meera Srinivasan
Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry on Thursday denied reports that a Chinese research vessel involved in space and satellite tracking would enter the Hambantota port in August this year, even as India sent a “clear message” that it was monitoring the ship’s progress “carefully”.
“We have no confirmation of such a vessel calling at the Hambantota port,” a Defence Ministry spokesman told The Hindu in Colombo, when asked about the reports. The vessel’s arrival was highlighted by BRISL (Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka), a Colombo-based organisation studying China’s ambitious connectivity project.
On its website, the BRISL said “Yuan Wang 5, which set sail from the Chinese port of Jiangyin on July 13, and passed by Taiwan is now in the East China Sea, and was expected to dock in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port from August 11-17 for ‘replenishment’ while it continues to conduct Space and Satellite control and research activities in the north-western part of the Indian Ocean Region” through August and September.
“The visit of Yuan Wang 5 to Hambantota Port will be excellent opportunity for Sri Lanka and the regional developing nations to learn and develop their own space programmes,” the report published by the “education and consulting platform” BRISL said last week.
“It is not a military vessel. The details of the course of the vessel are available online for anyone to see,” BRISL Director Yasiru Ranaraja told The Hindu.
When asked, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) confirmed it had seen the report, which had appeared in TheEconomic Times. “We are aware of reports of a proposed visit by this vessel combined to the port in August. Let me just say that the government carefully monitors any development having a bearing on India’s security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them. I think that should be a clear message,” said MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi during a weekly media briefing.
According to information on a global marine tracking website (www.marinetraffic.com), the Yuang Wan 5 is currently sailing “at 19.0 knots”, and headed to Hambantota, expected to arrive on August 11 at noon. It is unclear whether the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry’s statement indicates that the ship was not actually bound for Hambantota, or that India’s objections have been taken on board and the ship has been diverted. The Hindu is yet to receive a response from Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence to its query citing the MEA spokesman’s comment.
India has traditionally taken a stern view of Chinese military or suspected dual-purpose vessels in the Indian ocean, and the MEA has protested such visits with Sri Lanka in the past. India’s concerns have been focused on Hambantota in particular. In 2017, Colombo leased the southern port to China Merchant Port Holdings, after Sri Lanka was unable to keep its loan repayment commitments, fanning fears over potential use of the port for military purposes.
In 2014, Sri Lanka’s decision to allow a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine Changzheng 2 in Colombo became a diplomatic flashpoint, as New Delhi expressed serious concern. Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, flew to New Delhi to meet with National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and discuss the decision. In 2019, the Indian Navy had pushed out a Chinese Naval ship Shi Yan 1, that had come into waters close to the Andaman Islands, and in 2020, two Chinese Research vessels in the Indian Ocean near the Andaman islands had also sparked concerns similar to the current proposed visit of the satellite tracking ship.