By Meera Srinivasan
India has raised the scheduled visit of a Chinese research vessel to a Sri Lankan port with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, after the Ministry of Defence in Colombo confirmed the ship’s arrival, despite New Delhi giving a “clear message” on its concerns.
While there is no official statement so far from either the Indian mission in Colombo, or the President’s office in this regard, the matter “was raised at the highest level by the Indian side,” an official source in Colombo, familiar with the development, told The Hindu on Monday.
Following media reports last week of ‘Yuan Wang 5’ — a Chinese vessel involved in space and satellite tracking — calling at Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota Port, the Ministry of Defence denied such a vessel was arriving. However, taking back its denial within days, the ministry said last weekend that it had cleared the vessel’s entry into the Chinese-built Hambantota Port, where it would dock from August 11 to 17.
The confirmation not only sparked serious concern in New Delhi, but also raised eyebrows in Colombo too, coming two days after Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi’s media remarks that India “carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests”. China has defended the ship’s visit and asked “relevant parties” to “refrain from interfering” with its “legitimate maritime activities.”
Members of Sri Lanka’s political opposition on Monday commented on the vessel’s scheduled arrival, and urged the government not to “accentuate” India’s strategic concerns, especially at a time when Colombo is counting on urgent economic assistance from both New Delhi and Beijing to tide over the island’s economic crisis.
Referring to a report in the local Daily Mirror, opposition parliamentarian Harsha de Silva said in a tweet on Monday: “I fervently hope the ‘highest level’ (as mentioned) will resolve this before getting out of hand. India and China are dependable friends and we certainly don’t need to change that. Specially now when we desperately need both to help us.”
The opposition Tamil National Alliance, too, weighed in on the development in a series of tweets. “Chinese space-craft tracking ship Yuanwang-5 entering the Hambantota harbour on 11 August has again given rise to tensions in the region. We do not take sides with regard to power struggles between other countries. But we have also consistently stated that China’s military presence in the Indian ocean would give India a legitimate Defence concern and that SL should not accentuate that by providing space for Chinese military presence in SL,” the Alliance said.