Sri Lanka seeks delay in Chinese ship visit

A Chinese satellite tracking ship

MUMBAI, India – Sri Lanka has asked China to defer the planned visit of a Chinese satellite tracking ship that has raised security concerns in India.

Controversy over the ship’s planned arrival close to Indian shores erupted late last month after New Delhi said that it carefully monitors developments affecting its economic and security interests with reference to the Chinese ship.

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Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday that the Yuan Wang 5 was given permission last month to dock at the port of Hambantota Thursday through August 17 for replenishment. But “subsequently in light of the need for further consultations,” it has asked China to postpone the visit. It did not cite a reason for doing so.

The Yuan Wang 5 is described as a research and survey vessel, according to analytics website MarineTraffic. Security analysts say that that the ship is also packed with sophisticated systems to monitor satellite, rocket and missile launches.

“It is loaded with very advanced sensors that can be used for surveillance,” said defense analyst Rahul Bedi in New Delhi.

Responding to reports that Colombo has deferred the ship’s visit, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said Monday, “It is completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called “security concerns” to pressure Sri Lanka.”

Without mentioning India, he said that it was “morally irresponsible” to exploit Sri Lanka’s vulnerabilities when it is dealing with an economic crisis and urged “relevant parties to see China’s marine scientific research activities in a rational light and stop disrupting normal exchange between China and Sri Lanka.”

The controversy underlines the diplomatic dilemma Sri Lanka faces in balancing ties with the rival Asian giants, whose help the tiny country needs to tide over an economic crisis.

Beijing’s expanding footprint in Sri Lanka over the last 15 years has long caused unease in India. In particular, New Delhi fears that the Chinese-built port of Hambantota could be used by Beijing as a strategic berth in the Indian Ocean. In 2017, Colombo leased the port to China for 99 years after it was unable to pay back its debt.