Tensions between India and China as the Yuan Wang 5 docks at the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka

Harbor workers in Hambantota enthusiastically greeted the Yuan Wang 5, waving Sri Lankan and Chinese flags, and the ship displayed a large banner reading “Hello Sri Lanka.”

However, the ship’s arrival appears to have escalated tensions between New Delhi and Beijing, which have spent billions of dollars on development and deals with Sri Lanka, an island of 22 million that sits on a key trade route.

The Yuan Wang 5 originally requested permission to dock at the port last week, but the visit was postponed after concerns were raised about the ship’s presence, though India denied it. put any pressure on Colombo.

China says the ship is being used for scientific research, but the US Department of Defense says the ship is under the command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and is capable of tracking satellites and missile launches.

On Saturday, Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said the government had held “extensive” consultations with “all concerned parties” with the “aim of resolving the issue in a spirit of friendship, mutual trust and constructive dialogue.”

The report said the ship was given permission to dock on the condition that no scientific research was conducted in Sri Lankan waters.

What is a ship?

The ship’s arrival at the port of Hambantota has always been controversial – China leased the port from Sri Lanka in 2017 for 99 years after Colombo defaulted on debts related to the construction of the facility.

At the time, the deal raised concerns that it would give China access to a key shipping route, placing it within India’s traditional sphere of influence. And the presence of a ship stuffed with advanced technology made Sri Lanka’s neighbors nervous.

The ship is under the command of the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF), “a theater command organization established to centralize the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, information and communications support,” according to a US Department of Defense report released last year. and the missions and possibilities of psychological warfare.”

“SSF also operates the Yuan Wang space support craft, which track satellite and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches,” the US said in a statement.

The crew of the Chinese research ship Yuan Wang 5 waves their country's national flags from the ship after arriving at Hambantota International Port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, August 16, 2022.

Karl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and former director of operations for the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said New Delhi’s concern about the ship’s presence in Sri Lanka is likely due to its surveillance capabilities.

“Espionage is not its primary mission…its primary mission is satellite tracking and monitoring of PRC missile launches, telemetry and satellite status…but the same capabilities can and are often used to monitor other countries’ satellite operations, communications links and missiles. telemetry,” he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the vessel was conducting scientific research “in accordance with international law.”

It “does not affect the security and economic interests of any country and should not be subject to interference by third parties,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

Tension between India and China

Yuan Wang 5 has become a symbol growing tension between India and China, which provided financial support to Colombo, which is experiencing the worst financial crisis in decades.
India provided decisive help to Sri Lanka as it suffers from shortages of food, fuel and medicines by providing $4 billion in credit lines.

China is also a major creditor to Sri Lanka and is vital to Sri Lanka’s efforts to restructure its debt in order to get help from the International Monetary Fund.

Relations between India and China have long been tense, although in recent years prolonged military confrontation along their common Himalayan border claimed dozens of lives.
Meanwhile, India has drawn closer to the United States in an attempt to counterbalance China’s increasingly assertive stance in the Indo-Pacific. In October, Washington and New Delhi will hold joint military exercises less than 100 kilometers from the disputed India-China border, further straining relations between the two nuclear powers.

At the end of July, Indian Ministry of Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi expressed concern about the visit of a Chinese vessel to Sri Lanka, telling reporters that “the government is closely following any developments relating to the security and economic interests of India and is taking all necessary measures to protection.”

Satishkumar Namdeo Gormade, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Indian Navy.  Gopal Baglai, Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, along with dignitaries as India donates a reconnaissance aircraft to the island nation on 15 August 2022.

On August 5, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo postponing the arrival of Yuan Wang 5 “until further consultations” on the matter.

Three days later, without naming India, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang said the “brutal interference” in Sri Lanka’s foreign relations was “the act of taking advantage of someone when they are in danger, which is contrary to the basic norms of international relations. .”

India later denied claims that its concerns were the reason for the ship’s delay, with Bagchi telling reporters last week, “Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own independent decisions.”

On Monday, India showed the strength of its commitment to Sri Lanka by donating a reconnaissance aircraft to the island nation in a ceremony attended by the President of Sri Lanka.

The donated aircraft “highlights cooperation” between maritime neighbors, India’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Chinese influence on Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an ideal hub for Chinese imports and exports and remains “highly strategic for India,” said Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the New Delhi Center for Policy Studies.

Sri Lanka found itself “between a rock and a hard place,” he said, referring to India and China, in no particular order.

“The Chinese put pressure on them. The Indians put pressure on them. And they cannot afford to lose any help. All countries that are small and economically weak will face these problems if they find themselves in a tough neighborhood.”

China has been investing in Sri Lanka for decades when most of the international community abstained.

Crisis in Sri Lanka: how to restore a destroyed country?

As many Western countries withdrew funding to Sri Lanka due to alleged human rights violations during the years-long civil war that ended in 2009, China has provided economic aid to the former Rajapaksa government, said Ganeshan Wignaraja, a senior fellow at the British think tank. ODI Global.

“Then Sri Lanka thought it could use China as a driver of infrastructure-based economic development,” he said.

Between 2005 and 2017 China spent almost $15 billion in Sri Lanka, but as the island nation’s economic fortunes waned, it struggled to pay off its debt and the countries negotiated a long-term port deal.

Wignaraia said that by sending Yuan Wang 5 to the port of Hambantota, he was testing the boundaries of this transaction.

“China was testing the terms of the lease agreement by sending a ship with satellites on board and with advanced capabilities,” Vignaraia said.

Brad Landon of CNN contributed to the story.

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