The Chinese space and satellite tracking ship Yuan Wang 5 was docked at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port around 8.30 am on Tuesday amid security concerns raised by New Delhi over the vessel’s earlier scheduled arrival on August 11.
The vessel, which has been granted clearance by Sri Lanka for “replenishment” purposes between August 16 and 22, has been described as a dual-use ship by the Indian media for “spying” on India’s strategic assets in the Indian Ocean Region.
What Did Sri Lanka Say?
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had issued a statement, which pointed to postponing the scheduled arrival of the Chinese ship on August 11, but on August 6, it requested China to defer the vessel’s arrival due to India’s concerns. According to The Hindu, the ministry held “extensive consultations” with all parties concerned with a view to resolving the matter in a spirit of “friendship, mutual trust and constructive dialogue, taking into account the interests of all parties concerned”. “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 ministry had said.
But Sri Lanka’s harbour master, Nirmal P Silva, said he had received foreign ministry clearance for the ship to call at Hambantota from August 16 to 22. “The diplomatic clearance was received by me today. We will work with the local agent appointed by the vessel to ensure logistics at the port,” Silva told AFP.
Chinese foreign ministry had earlier said it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called security concerns to pressure Sri Lanka”. Ministry’s spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “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.”
What are India’s Concerns?
New Delhi had raised the matter with Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, and issued statements during the Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA) weekly meetings on July 28. “India carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said, and “rejected insinuations” that Sri Lanka was “pressured”.
Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways Sarabananda Sonowal had said on August 14 that India is “well equipped” to handle any challenge arising out of the ship’s arrival. “We are well equipped and well prepared to handle any kind of situation effectively under the dynamic leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That is clear,” Sonowal said.
The Chinese Ship Yuan Wang 5
According to Indian media reports, Yuan Wang 5 is a dual-use ship, with an ability to spy on Indian military establishment in the area. The ship has been described as research and survey vessel by international shipping and analytical sites.
According to Indian media reports the ship could be used for space and satellite tracking, and has specific uses in intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
Yuan Wang 5 is a third-generation tracking ship of Yuan Wang series. It has top of the line antennas and electronic equipment to track missiles and rockets. It can oversee a distance of 750 km, which means India strategic activities on the East Coast could be on its radar.
It was built at China’s Jiangnan Shipyard, and entered service in 2007. It is 222-metre long and 25.2-metre-wide vessel and tracks transoceanic aerospace through state-of-the-art technology onboard. It last monitored the launch of China’s ‘Long March 5B’ rocket last month.
Even as permission to allow Chinese vessel at the Sri Lankan port was announced, Colombo’s air force said it had been given a maritime surveillance aircraft by India – Dornier 228. According to the Sri Lankan Air Force, the aircraft was a gesture in response to a request made by the Lankan government to India in 2018 for two Dornier reconnaissance aircraft to enhance maritime surveillance.
Why is the Vessel Docked at Hambantota Port?
Sri Lanka developed the southern port of Hambantota, leasing it out to China for 99 years in 2017. Located 10 nautical miles from the global shipping route linking the Far East with the West, the Hambantota Port is Sri Lanka’s most diversified deep-water port, and offers several services for the shipping industry. Due to its location in the Indian Ocean rim, where 50% of world’s maritime oil is traded, the port has a potential in energy services.
According to an India Today article, Hambantota port is close to Asian and European international shipping routes. Around 36,000 ship, including oil tankers use these route through Hambantota, which saves about three days of sailing time and fuel.
In 2016, the Sri Lankan government decided to privatise an 80% stake of the port to raise foreign exchange. CMPort paid $1.12 billion to revive the port under a public-private partnership. During the first half of 2021, the port has recorded overall growth in its volumes and diversification of services.
The docking of the Chinese vessel could have a huge impact on Tamil Nadu, which has a coastal area of 1,076 km, and has India’s two big strategic assets — Kalpakan and Kudankulam nuclear power plants.
According to a few media reports, the Tamil Nadu Police has received intelligence inputs that there would be protests by pro-LTTE groups in the state following the arrival of the Chinese vessel. Therefore, the police have stepped up security in the coastal area.