Sri Lanka’s government has granted permission for a controversial Chinese research vessel to visit the island despite India’s concerns that it could spy on New Delhi’s military installations, officials said on Saturday.
The Yuan Wang 5 is described as a research and survey vessel by international shipping and analytics sites, but is said to be a dual-use spy ship.
New Delhi is suspicious of Beijing’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean and influence in Sri Lanka, seeing both as being firmly within its sphere of influence.
The Yuan Wang 5 was originally due to call at Sri Lanka’s Chinese-run Hambantota port on August 11, only for Colombo to ask Beijing to indefinitely defer the visit.
Sri Lanka government sources said that although India had raised concerns with President Ranil Wickremesinghe himself, the country failed to give a “satisfactory response” as to why the ship should not be allowed to dock.
“On 12 August 2022 the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China informed the Ministry via Diplomatic Note that the Vessel YUAN WANG 5 was scheduled to arrive in the port of Hambantota on 16 August, 2022 and applied for clearance for replenishment purposes,” Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement to NDTV.
“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,” it added.
Port officials said the Chinese vessel was about 1,000 kilometres southeast of Sri Lanka on Friday night and was heading slowly towards the Hambantota deep sea port.
Sri Lanka leased the port to China for 99 years for $1.12 billion, less than the $1.4 billion Sri Lanka paid a Chinese company to build it.
According to sources in the Indian government, the Yuan Wang 5 could be employed for space and satellite tracking and has specific uses in intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
However, the government on Friday rejected China’s “insinuations” that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the ship’s visit even as it asserted that it will take decisions based on its security concerns.
External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said Sri Lanka, as a sovereign country, makes its own independent decisions and noted that India would make its judgment on its security concerns based on the prevailing situation in the region, especially in the border areas.
“We reject the insinuations in the statement about India. Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own independent decisions,” Mr Bagchi said when asked about the issue at a media briefing.