As the Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship Yuan Wang 5 arrived at the port of Hambantota, a strategically important deep sea port in southern Sri Lanka, on Tuesday morning, China said its ship’s movements would not affect the security of any country and that it would not be. Being “obstructed” by any “third party” – a reference to India and its security concerns.
When asked about Delhi’s concerns and the delay in the Chinese ship’s voyage, Beijing’s envoy to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, who was present at the port of Hambantota when the ship arrived, told reporters, “I don’t know, ask you Want Indian friends… I don’t know. Maybe this is life.”
Last Saturday, Sri Lanka, which postponed the visit of a Chinese military vessel following concerns raised by India, took a U-turn and allowed the ship to dock at Hambantota port from August 16 to 22.
The Yuan Wang 5 is a powerful tracking vessel whose significant aerial reach – reportedly around 750 km – means that several ports in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh may be on China’s radar.
There was no official response from New Delhi regarding the development. Ahead of the ship’s arrival on Sunday, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said China would not be allowed to use the Hambantota port for military purposes.
Last week, ahead of Colombo’s U-turn, a foreign ministry spokesperson had said, “Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and takes its own independent decisions.”
In Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Yuan Wang 5 had “successfully berthed” at Hambantota port with “active cooperation from the Sri Lankan side”.
He said when the ship arrived, Ambassador Qi Zhenhong hosted an onsite reception at the port of Hambantota, which Beijing took on a 99-year lease in 2017 as a loan swap.
Referring to the concerns of India and the US on the ship, Wang said, “I want to reiterate that Yuan Wang 5’s marine scientific research activities are in line with international law and international common practice.”
“They do not affect the security and economic interests of any country and should not be obstructed by any third party,” he said.
He said the ceremony was attended by “heads of more than ten parties and heads of friendly communities” beside a representative of Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
“It will take some time to complete the replenishment of essential supplies to the Yuan Wang 5 research ship,” he said.
Yuan Wang class ships are used to track satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches. The ships complement Beijing’s land-based tracking stations.
In the past too, India has taken a tough stand on the presence of Chinese military ships in the Indian Ocean and has taken up the matter with Sri Lanka.
Relations between India and Sri Lanka had earlier strained over Colombo’s permission to dock a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine at one of its ports in 2014.
In 2017, Colombo leased the Hambantota port to China Merchants Port Holdings for 99 years, as Sri Lanka was unable to meet its debt repayment commitments.
China is a major debtor to Sri Lanka in terms of infrastructure investment. Debt restructuring of Chinese debt is key to the island’s success in negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
India, on the other hand, has been Sri Lanka’s lifeline in the ongoing economic crisis, providing economic assistance of around USD 4 billion.