COLOMBO: A high-tech Chinese research ship that was supposed to dock at Sri Lanka's southern port of Hambantota has not berthed as planned, the country's ports authority said on Friday, days after India expressed security concerns over its presence in the island nation.
Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship 'Yuan Wang 5' was to arrive on Thursday and remain at the port until August 17 for replenishment.
The Harbour Master of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) said that the ship did not arrive at the port as planned. The ship is awaiting clearance to enter from its location 600 nautical miles away east of Hambantota, local officials said.
On July 12, Sri Lankan foreign ministry granted approval for the vessel's docking at the Hambantota Port.
On August 8, the ministry in a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo requested for deferring the planned docking of the ship. It, however, did not specify the reason for such a request. 'Yuan Wang 5' had already entered the Indian Ocean by that time.
Sri Lanka's request for postponement came after the Indian government had raised strong objections to the visit citing security concerns. The SLPA said that although a Chinese company is in charge of the Hambantota port, the navigation and operational issues are handled by it.
Sri Lanka's opposition political parties have blamed the government for what they termed mishandling of the issue of the docking of the Chinese ship.
The five-party breakaway group of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party in a joint statement urged that the ship be allowed to visit Hambantota.
The southern deep-sea port of Hambantota is considered strategically important for its location. The port has been developed largely with Chinese loans. India has said it carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests.
"We are aware of reports of a proposed visit by this vessel to Hambantota in August," External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said in New Delhi when asked about the reports of a proposed visit by a Chinese vessel.
"The government carefully monitors any development having a bearing on India's security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them," he said last month.
New Delhi is concerned about the possibility of the ship's tracking systems attempting to snoop on Indian installations while being on its way to the Sri Lankan port.
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 came under strain after Colombo gave permission to a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to dock in one of its ports in 2014. 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.
On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was "completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called "security concerns" to pressure Sri Lanka."
"As Sri Lanka grapples with economic and political difficulties, to grossly interfere in Sri Lanka's normal exchange and cooperation with other countries is to exploit its vulnerability, which is morally irresponsible and against the basic norms governing international relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in Beijing in response to a question on the Chinese vessel's planned docking at the Hambantota port.
"We urge the relevant parties to see China's marine scientific research activities in a rational light and stop disrupting normal exchange and cooperation between China and Sri Lanka," Wang added. 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.
It 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.