A Chinese research vessel loaded with antennas and communications equipment docked at the Chinese port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, despite Indian and US concerns about its alleged spying activities.
The Yuan Wang 5 entered the deep-sea port after receiving permission to enter Sri Lankan waters on the condition that it not participate in research, port officials said.
He was originally due to arrive last week, but Colombo asked Beijing to postpone the visit after objections from India, which shares Western concerns about China’s activities in the region.
But on Saturday, after intense negotiations, Sri Lanka announced a reversal, saying permission had been renewed to berth in the southern port and stay for six days to refuel and take on other supplies.
“We provide the same opportunities as all other countries,” government spokesman Bandula Gunawardana told reporters. “All these countries are important to us.”
China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, said Yuan Wang 5’s visit was part of a “routine exchange between the two countries.”
“China and Sri Lanka enjoy a great friendship,” Qi told reporters at the ship’s welcoming ceremony.
Shipping analyst websites describe the Yuan Wang 5 as a research vessel, but according to Indian media, it is a dual-purpose spy ship.
There was no usual military band to welcome the ship, but a small group of traditional Kandy dancers and drummers performed on the red carpet.
Several legislators were also at the pier, but no senior politicians or other dignitaries were on board.
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“Long live China-Sri Lanka friendship,” read a red-and-white banner on the upper deck of the vessel, which had at least four satellite dishes pointing skyward.
Men in white shirts and black trousers stood on deck waving Chinese and Sri Lankan flags as the vessel was pushed towards the main jetty.
Hambantota port has been operated by the Chinese since 2017, when they took it on a 99-year lease for $1.12 billion, less than the $1.4 billion Sri Lanka paid a Chinese firm to build it.
New Delhi is suspicious of Beijing’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and its influence in Sri Lanka, which it sees as both within its sphere of influence.
Both India and the US expressed concern over the ship’s visit to Sri Lanka, and New Delhi lodged a complaint against Colombo.
China said it was “absolutely unjustified for some countries” to cite “security concerns” to pressure Sri Lanka, especially at a time when the island is facing an unprecedented economic crisis.
The ship’s activities “were in accordance with international law and international practice and did not affect the security or economic interests of any country,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters.
“They should not be interfered with by third parties.”
A day before the ship’s arrival, India gifted a Dornier 228 surveillance aircraft to Sri Lanka in a bid to strengthen maritime surveillance capabilities on the island.
The Chinese ship was allowed to enter the port on the condition that it activates the Automatic Identification System (AIS) while in Sri Lankan waters and does not conduct scientific research.
According to Indian reports, the Yuan Wang 5 can be used for space and satellite tracking and has a special application in intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
Between 2005 and 2015, Sri Lanka borrowed heavily from China and in 2017 relinquished control of the port of Hambantota, which is on the main East-West shipping lanes.
Sri Lanka said it could not afford to pay China to build the port and leased the facility for 99 years.
China is Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, owning more than 10 percent of the island’s external debt.
Beijing’s support is essential for Colombo to restructure its external debt to qualify for International Monetary Fund assistance.
On August 4, President Ranil Wickremesinghe “reiterated Sri Lanka’s firm commitment to the one-China policy” following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, calling for “non-interference in the internal affairs of countries”.
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