India says it will protect its interests as Chinese boat heads to Sri Lanka

India, which is trying to expand its influence in crisis-hit Sri Lanka after China made deep inroads there, on Thursday said it has received reports about a planned visit of a Chinese
vessel to a Sri Lankan port built with money from Beijing.

Shipping data from Refinitiv Eikon showed that the research and survey vessel Yuan Vang 5 was en route to the southern Sri Lankan port of Hambantota and was expected to arrive on 11 August.

“The government carefully monitors any developments relating to India’s security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to protect them,” India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi told a weekly media briefing.

“I think it should be a clear message.” He did not specify what measures India was taking and to whom the message was addressed.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Sri Lankan officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

A Sri Lankan government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Indian diplomats in Colombo lodged a verbal protest with Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry on Monday.

A Sri Lankan consulting firm, Belt and Road Initiative Sri Lanka, said on its website that Yuan Wang 5 will be in Hambantota for a week.

“The ship will conduct space tracking, satellite control and research tracking in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean region during August and September,” it says In-Hambantota-port, without citing any sources.

Sri Lanka formally handed over commercial activities in its main southern port to a Chinese company in 2017 on a 99-year lease after struggling to pay its debts. The port is near the main shipping route from Asia to Europe.

US and Indian officials are concerned that the $1.5 billion port could become a Chinese military base.

Beijing is welcome to pour more money into massive China-backed projects in Hambantota and Colombo, a Sri Lankan official told Reuters on Monday.

China is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest lenders and has also funded India’s troubled airports, roads and railways.

As Sri Lanka now battles its worst economic crisis in seven decades, India this year alone has provided its support of nearly $4 billion.

Responding to a tweet on the proposed Hambantota visit, Indian security analyst Nitin A. Gokhale invoked Sri Lanka’s decision to allow a Chinese submarine and a warship to dock in Colombo in 2014, a move that angered India at the time.

“2014 redux?” Gokhale said on Twitter. “Harmless port call or deliberate provocation?”

India’s concerns over Chinese influence in Sri Lanka come as US President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping held their fifth call as leaders on Thursday amid tensions over a possible visit to Chinese-claimed Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Thursday, that Taiwan’s military opened fire to warn a drone that it was “looking” at a strategically located and heavily fortified island close to the Chinese coast that could potentially protect its defences.

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