Chinese ship makes controversial Sri Lanka visit

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The docking was previously postponed, with India and the US reportedly considering it a spy vessel

A Chinese naval research ship docked in a Beijing-built port in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, a week after its arrival was postponed, allegedly due to concerns raised by the US and India. While China describes the ship as conducting “marine scientific research,” Indian sources have called it a “dual-use spy vessel.”

The Yuan Wang 5 moored in the port of Hambantota and was welcomed by Sri Lankan and Chinese officials, the AP reported. Located on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, the port of Hambantota was built by Chinese contractors and leased to Beijing in 2017 when Sri Lanka could not repay its construction costs. 

The arrival of the ship was initially scheduled for last week but was pushed back at Sri Lanka’s request. The country’s foreign ministry cited “certain concerns” in requesting the delay.

Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken both personally objected to the ship’s visit when they met with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry in Cambodia earlier this month, the Hindustan Times reported. While New Delhi has not acknowledged these claims, Indian media has been highly critical of the Yuan Wang 5’s arrival, with several outlets describing it as a ship with intelligence-gathering capabilities.

According to a 2021 Pentagon report, the Yuan Wang 5 is operated by the Strategic Support Force of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The report stated that Yuan Wang-class ships can be used to monitor satellite, rocket and ballistic missile launches.

India’s concerns stem from the fact that the Yuan Wang 5 “is a powerful vessel whose significant aerial reach — reportedly around 750 km — means that several ports in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh could be on China’s radar,” the Indian Express reported on Sunday.

China, however, has dismissed these concerns. “The marine scientific research activities of the Yuan Wang 5 ship are consistent with international law and international customary practice,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a press conference on Tuesday. “They do not affect the security and economic interests of any country and should not be obstructed by any third party.”

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe said that China will not be allowed to use the port of Hambantota for military purposes.

The vessel “did not come under the category of military. [It] came under the category of a research ship,” Wickremesinghe said in an interview with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper on Sunday. “That is how [we] permitted the ship to come to Hambantota.”

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