The arrival of a Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang 5, at Hambantota port of Sri Lanka has stirred the waters of Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Incidentally, the docking of the ship is coming close on the heels of escalating tension between Beijing and Washington in the Taiwan Strait.
The Chinese media reported this news without sounding aggressive as in the case of developments in Taiwan. Treating it as a routine affair it sought to downplay the spying aspect of the ship by stating that the vessel is there only for “replenishment”. It maintains that the ship could not be denied docking at Hambantota since military vessels of other countries too have been allowed to berth there.
According to a Xinhua report, Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong was, along with Sri Lankan government officials, present when the ship docked at Hambantota. Speaking at the welcoming ceremony, he said that the port is a key cooperation project between China and Sri Lanka under the Belt and Road Initiative. The ambassador added that the visit of Yuan Wang 5 shows that the traditional friendship between China and Sri Lanka is deep-rooted and ever-lasting.
The Chinese ship arrived here on 16 August and will be docked till August 22. Initially, it was to arrive on August 11, but it is said that India pressurised Sri Lanka as the former was alarmed at this development. Media reports suggest that because of Indian pressure, the visit was put off and it was allowed to enter Hambantota on August 16.
According to Sri Lankan sources, the ship has not been given any special facility. However, many experts are of the view that the ship is a spy vessel belonging to the People’s Liberation Army of China. It is fitted with all sorts of high-tech snooping and reconnaissance equipment.
India has officially denied that it has put any pressure on Sri Lanka but the arrival of the Chinese ship in Hambantota has certainly created an uneasiness in the region.
It needs to be mentioned that Hambantota is the port which was formally leased to China in 2017 for 99 years by the Sri Lankan government. Actually the process to build the second largest port after Colombo had started when Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President. Hambantota is his home district and the port was named after him when it was inaugurated in 2010.
As the port is strategically located on the main Asia-Europe shipping route, India suspects that it can be used for spying purposes. Because India has many space and missile-related installations on the Eastern Coast (such as Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, Abdul Kalam Island, formerly known as Wheeler Island, in Odisha) India’s concerns are natural.
One reason for Sri Lanka allowing the Yuan Wang 5 to dock is the financial support it receives from China, particularly at this time of great difficulty.
China is the country’s single largest bilateral creditor and investor with investments totalling over $ 6.5 billion. In addition, China also has influence in the International Monetary Fund, from which Sri Lanka is expecting a bail-out at this time of great financial crisis.
It needs to be mentioned that this is not the first time a Chinese military vessel is charting the Indian Ocean waters. According to sources in the Indian Navy, Chinese vessels regularly ply in the Indian Ocean for different purposes including spying on nuclear and space-related installations in South India.
Though the green signal for the ship to dock at Hambantota has created a small rift between India and its southern neighbour, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe in his first formal address to the Sri Lankan parliament, said that, “I wish to specially mention the assistance provided by India, our closest neighbour… On behalf of my people and that of my own, I convey
gratitude to Prime Minister Modi, the government and the people of India.”
Only time will tell whether Sri Lanka gravitates towards India or China in the long run but the docking of Yuan Wang 5 has certainly complicated the matter as Beijing is mounting pressure on New Delhi across the Himalayas.
(Sarim Ahmed is an independent researcher and has learnt the Chinese language as well.)