The story so far: On August 13, Sri Lanka approved the arrival of a Chinese satellite-tracking vessel to its southern Chinese-funded Hambantota port. It was the second approval from the island nation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after it first cleared the visit on July 12. In the weeks in between, India raised concerns over the ship’s visit with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, and officially commented on it, while Indian media splashed headlines of a “Chinese spy ship” hovering in the Indian Ocean. Caught in a delicate diplomatic and geopolitical spot, Colombo gave its nod after “extensive consultations” with “all parties”.
Yuan Wang 5 was described by the Sri Lankan government as a “scientific research ship”. The BRISL (Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka), a Colombo-based organisation studying China’s ambitious connectivity project, was the first to draw attention to the visit in a Twitter post late July. It said that the Yuan Wang 5 will conduct “satellite control and research tracking in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean Region” through August and September. Vessels of the Yuan Wang class are said to be used for tracking and supporting satellite as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles by the People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force.
India has expressed its concern over the Chinese vessel visit. The spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs commented twice on the issue. Addressing the weekly media conference in New Delhi, the official initially stated that India “carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests” and later said that they were “rejecting insinuations” that Sri Lanka was “pressured”. After India raised the matter with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar took it up with his Sri Lankan counterpart Ali Sabry on the side-lines of the recent ASEAN summit in Cambodia. In a similar bilateral meeting in Phnom Penh, U. S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken too raised the issue with Mr. Sabry, The Hindu reliably learned from official sources in Colombo.
At the same forum, Mr. Sabry reportedly discussed the matter with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, sources said. An official statement said the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister firmly backed the ‘One China Policy’ that President Wickremesinghe earlier endorsed. The developments showed that Colombo was caught between the U.S. and India on the one hand, and China on the other. That too at a time when the Sri Lankan government is counting on all their support as the island nation, hit by a devastating economic crisis, embarks on debt restructuring ahead of a promised International Monetary Fund (IMF) package.
China reacted strongly after Sri Lanka, following concerns voiced by India, requested China to defer the visit of the vessel “in light of the need for further consultations”. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “I have noted relevant reports and would like to stress two points. First, Sri Lanka is a transportation hub in the Indian Ocean. Scientific research vessels from various countries including China have made port calls in Sri Lanka for replenishment. China always exercises freedom of the high seas in accordance with the law and fully respects coastal countries’ jurisdiction over scientific research activities in waters under their jurisdiction. Second, Sri Lanka is a sovereign country. It has the right to develop relations with other countries based on its development interests. To have normal cooperation is the independent choice made by our two countries. It serves the shared interests of both sides and does not target any third party.” Without directly referring to India, he added that it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called ‘security concerns’ to pressure Sri Lanka.”
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said: “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.” The announcement meant that the controversial vessel visit, earlier scheduled for August 11, was effectively postponed by five days, while its week-long duration remained as was earlier planned.
The developments were “in light of certain concerns raised with the Ministry”, it said, without naming India in its statement. Sri Lanka’s popular weekend newspaper Sunday Times reported that the U.S. and Indian envoys were asked to provide “concrete reasons” for their objections. “Not satisfied with the reasons being sufficient to refuse entry to the Chinese vessel, the Government decided to inform the Chinese embassy in Colombo to inform the ship to continue its journey to Hambantota,” a news report published on August 14 said.