HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka: A Chinese navy vessel arrived at a Beijing-built port in southern Sri Lanka on Tuesday, after its port call was earlier delayed due to apparent security concerns raised by India.
The Yuan Wang 5 sailed into the Hambantota port and was welcomed by Sri Lankan and Chinese officials in the morning. The development could spark worry in India, which views China’s rising influence in the Indian Ocean with suspicion.
Sri Lanka has referred to the Yuan Wang 5 as a “scientific research ship,” but there are fears in India that the vessel could be used to surveil the region, with multiple media reports calling it a “dual-use spy ship.”
“The Yuan Wang 5 is a powerful tracking 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 newspaper wrote.
The keenly watched developments surrounding the vessel underscore the competing interest from regional giants India and China in the small island nation. For more than a decade, Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean and along one of the busiest shipping routes has seen both countries vie for influence.
Over the years, Beijing was widely seen as having an upper hand with its free-flowing loans and infrastructure investments. But Sri Lanka’s economic collapse proved an opportunity for India to gain greater sway, as New Delhi stepped in with massive financial and material assistance to its neighbor.
The ship has permission to dock in Hambantota until Aug. 22, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said last weekend. It added that China had agreed the ship would keep its identification systems on and would not carry out any research activities while in Sri Lanka waters.
“Given the geopolitical dynamics in the region and Sri Lanka’s heavy vulnerability on the economic front, Sri Lanka is playing with two fires at a diplomatic level,” said international affairs analyst Ranga Kalansooriya.
The Yuan Wang family of naval vessels serve both the Chinese missile force and the space program, which is run by the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.
Previous official Chinese media reports have described PLA officers serving in command positions aboard the vessels in the Yuan Wang class, which may also have civilians in their crews.
China Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin dismissed concerns about the ship in a briefing Monday.
“I would like to reiterate that the marine scientific research conducted by the research ship Yuan Wang 5 conforms to international law and international common practice, and will not affect the security and economic interests of any country,” he said.