On the morning of August 16, the Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship 'Yuan Wang 5' docked at the Hambantota port on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. The arrival of the high-tech vessel was quick to raise concern in New Delhi as Colombo allowed the ship to dock at the Hambantota port.
As the ship is scheduled to stay docked at the port till August 22, here's a look at why India is worried about its presence there.
What is the Yuan Wang 5?
China has said that the ship, Yuan Wang 5, is used for scientific research. But a 2021 report by the US Defense Department suggests otherwise. The report said that the Yuan Wang 5 comes under the command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA's) Strategic Support Force (SSF), which "is a theater command-level organization established to centralize the PLA's strategic space, cyber, electronic, information, communications, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities".
While China claimed that it was a research ship, it wasn't wrong. But much of the research is likely to do with space based surveillance and weapon launch. The report said, "The SSF operates several academic and research institutions including the Information Engineering University, Space Engineering University, and the former GSD 56th and 57th Research Institutes. These institutions offer programs in space based surveillance, intelligence, weapon launch and early warning, communications and information engineering, cryptology, big data, and information attack and defense technology."
The ship's arrival in Sri Lanka also presents the relationship between the two countries. For starters, the Hambantota Port was leased by the Sri Lankan government to China as part of a debt swap.
Sri Lanka struggled with a huge Chinese debt and was unable to keep up with its commitment to repay the loan. As a result, in 2017, the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe agreed to lease the Hambantota Port to a venture led by China Merchants Port Holdings Co. in return for US$1.1 billion.
China has been a fundamental creditor of Sri Lanka's infrastructure investment, including the Hambantota Port Development Project, which was part of Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative. It has also been the largest provider of foreign debt to Colombo according to official data from the Sri Lankan government.
While many Chinese officials and analysts said that the interest in Hambantota port has been commercially oriented, Sri Lankans officials believe the port's location provides various strategic and intelligence possibilities to Beijing.
But during the ongoing Sri Lankan economic crisis, the Indian government has provided economic assistance of nearly US$ 4 billion.
India raised its concerns along with the US as they saw the presence of Yuan Wang 5 in Hambantota as a potential military presence in the strategic Indo-Pacific region. It may give China an insight into India's defence measures as the tracking and satellite support vessel has the capabilities of tracking around 750 km, according to an Indian Express report. This means that several ports in the Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh can come under Beijing's radar.
The ship's radar can track the Indian Army's military bases in the peninsula, and the nuclear submarine bases in Kalpakkam and Kudankulam. ISRO's Chandipur launch centre can also be tracked by the Yuan Wang 5. It also has the capabilities to monitor the lands it passes.
Sri Lankan president Ranil Wickremesinghe dismissed concerns by the US and India during an interview with Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, saying, "We do not want Hambantota to be used for military purposes."
India requested Sri Lanka to defer the entry of the 'spy ship' but according to a Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry statement, both India and US did not provide 'concrete reasons' for deferring Yuan Wang 5's entry into Hambantota. Wickremesinghe said that they allowed the ship to enter Hambantota because it did not come under the "category of military". Colombo has also maintained that it allowed the ship to dock on the condition that no scientific research would be carried out.
Sri Lankan MP Bandula Gunawardane welcomed the Chinese ship's entry saying, "We (Sri Lanka) are granting the same (port) facilities that we extend to all other countries," since "all these countries are important to us."
Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center, said that India's concern about the Yuan Wang 5 in Hambantota was likely due to the ship's monitoring capabilities.
He told CNN, "Spying is not her (the ship's) primary mission ... her primary mission is satellite tracking and monitoring PRC rocket launches, telemetry, and satellite status ... but that same capability can and often is employed to monitor other countries' satellite operations, downlinks and missile telemetry."
India is monitoring developments that have a bearing on national security and economic interests. The Indian Navy aims to position its warships along critical sea lanes of communications and carry out aerial surveillance.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that the presence of the ship did not affect the security and economic interests of any country, "and hould not be obstructed by any third party".
He said, "I want to stress again that the marine scientific research activities of the Yuan Wang-5 ship are consistent with international law and international customary practice."
Before the vessel's entry was deferred by Sri Lanka , Wang had said "Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own independent decisions."
The Sri Lankan government granted access to the Hambantota port to the Yuan Wang 5 from August 16 to August 22. The ship's arrival was welcomed by China's ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, who was present at the port.
After being asked about New Delhi's pressure on Colombo to defer the Chinese ship's visit, Zhenhong said, "I don't know, you should ask the Indian friends… I don't know. Maybe this is life." According to him, the ship's visit was part of "normal exchanges between the two countries".
The ship's arrival can potentially increase the tensions between New Delhi and Beijing. According to China, "It will take some time for the Yuan Wang 5 research ship to complete the replenishment of necessary supplies after the docking".
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