Chinese research vessel docks at Sri Lanka's Hambantota port despite India, US concerns; Beijing plays down the row

Yuan Wang 5 was welcomed by Sri Lankan port officials and Chinese officials from the ship company at the Hambantota port.
Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese scientific research ship, arrives at the port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (Photo | AP)
Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese scientific research ship, arrives at the port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (Photo | AP)

HAMBANTOTA: A Chinese scientific research ship whose port call was earlier deferred due to apparent security concerns raised by India arrived Tuesday at a southern port in Sri Lanka.

Yuan Wang 5 was welcomed by Sri Lankan port officials and Chinese officials from the ship company at the Hambantota port.

The ship was originally set to arrive Aug. 11 but Sri Lanka's foreign ministry asked to postpone the docking until further consultations took place. The ministry said last weekend that the ship was given permission to dock in Hambantota until Aug. 22. It said the two sides had agreed the ship would keep its identification systems on and would not carry out any research activities while in Sri Lanka waters.

Sri Lanka said it was postponing the ship’s arrival because of concerns raised with the ministry but didn't identify who had raised them. Security concerns of neighbouring India over the ship’s proximity to its southern borders likely factor in.

India on Monday gifted a maritime reconnaissance aircraft to Sri Lanka to strengthen its maritime security. The Indian embassy said Sri Lanka’s navy and air force personnel who were trained India will operate the aircraft with operational support from Indian personnel.

India’s foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said earlier that India was aware of a planned visit by the vessel and that it carefully monitors any development that affects its security and economic interests and will take all measures to safeguard them.

China has been vying to expand its influence in Sri Lanka, which sits along one of the busiest shipping routes in what India considers part of its strategic backyard.

India has provided crucial assistance including food, fuel, medicines and cooking gas to the Indian Ocean nation as it struggles with an economic meltdown amid a severe foreign currency crisis. At the same time, China’s agreement to restructure its infrastructure loans to Sri Lanka is vital for the country to be able to reach a bailout program with the International Monetary Fund.

China has lent Sri Lanka billions of dollars for development projects, some of which have been criticized as having little practical use. They include Hambantota port, which Sri Lanka leased to China in 2017 because it could not pay back the loan.

China's envoy in Sri Lanka on Tuesday played down the controversy, calling such visits "very natural".

Qi Zhenhong, China's Ambassador to Sri Lanka, was present at the port to welcome the ship.

Several parliamentarians from the breakaway group of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party were also present.

"This kind of research ship visiting Sri Lanka is very natural. In 2014 a similar ship came here," Zhenhong told reporters when asked about the visit. Asked about the Indian concerns, the Ambassador said, "I don't know, you should ask the Indian friends".

The ship maintained a very strict security operation with no one being allowed on board.

The Sri Lankan decision to postpone the visit caused much controversy in the country as the visit had been cleared in mid-July.

Commenting on the ship's arrival, the Cabinet spokesman Bandula Gunawardena said the issue was settled amicably.

"Relations with all countries are important to us," Gunawardena said.

The security and cooperation in the neighbourhood are of utmost priority in handling the issue of the Chinese vessel Wang Yang 5, the Foreign Ministry here said in a statement.

India has traditionally taken a stern view of Chinese military vessels in the Indian Ocean and has protested such visits with Sri Lanka in the past.

The ties between India and Sri Lanka had come under strain after Colombo permitted a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to dock in one of its ports in 2014.

China is the main creditor of Sri Lanka with investment in infrastructure.

Debt restructuring of Chinese loans would be key to the island's success in the ongoing 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.

India has been at the forefront of extending economic assistance of nearly USD 4 billion to Sri Lanka during the year as the island nation is grappling with the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.

India's concerns have been focused on Hambantota port in particular.

In 2017, Colombo leased the southern port to China Merchant Port Holdings for 99 years, after Sri Lanka was unable to keep its loan repayment commitments, fanning fears over the potential use of the port for military purposes.

( With PTI Inputs)

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