India wary of China raising its presence as surveillance vessel docks at Lankan port

Updated on Aug 17, 2022 06:44 AM IST

Sri Lanka gave in to intense pressure from China and last week reversed a decision to defer the visit to Hambantota by the Yuan Wang 5, which docked in the southern port on Tuesday morning.

China's vessel, the Yuan Wang 5, arrives at Hambantota port on Tuesday. (AFP)
China's vessel, the Yuan Wang 5, arrives at Hambantota port on Tuesday. (AFP)

New Delhi: India’s main concern about the visit of a Chinese surveillance vessel to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port centres around the possibility of a more established Chinese naval presence in regional waters, people familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.

Sri Lanka gave in to intense pressure from China and last week reversed a decision to defer the visit to Hambantota by the Yuan Wang 5, which docked in the southern port on Tuesday morning. Both India and the US have conveyed to the Sri Lankan side their concerns about the call by the vessel, used by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to track satellites and ballistic missiles.

Also Read: Sri Lanka allows entry for controversial Chinese ship despite India's concerns

The Indian Navy keeps a close watch on extra-regional activity in the Indian Ocean region, especially the movement and presence of Chinese vessels such as the Yuan Wang 5, navy officials said on condition of anonymity.

The Indian side had conveyed its concerns to the Sri Lankan side long before the vessel was due in regional waters, the people cited above said. “It isn’t just about the military or strategic capabilities of the vessel, but the overall comfort level of the Chinese navy in operating in these waters,” one of the people said.

“It’s not just about the replenishment of the Yuan Wang 5 today, but also about more such visits and possible efforts to have an established presence in the neighbourhood,” the person said.

The Indian side also isn’t buying the contention that the Yuan Wang 5 is calling at Hambantota for replenishment. “The vessel didn’t go to Colombo, but to Hambantota, which is under the control of the Chinese,” the person said.

The Indian side has opposed such visits by Chinese military vessels in the past, such as calls by a conventional submarine to Colombo port in September and October 2014, and will continue to flag its concerns in view of the Chinese navy’s growing efforts to establish a presence in regional waters, the people said.

Also Read: Chinese tracking ship docks at Sri Lankan port; Beijing says third party should not ‘obstruct’ cooperation

As part of its mission-based deployment model, the Indian Navy continues to position its warships along critical sea lanes of communications and choke points in the region, as well as carry out aerial surveillance, the naval officials said. “There’s nothing new about sighting Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean region. We monitor their maritime activity closely,” one of the officials said.

In a related development, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said China will not be allowed to use the Hambantota port for “military purposes”.

“We do not want Hambantota to be used for military purposes,” Wickremesinghe said in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper of Japan on Sunday, two days before the vessel sailed into the port in southern Sri Lanka.

“The present ship did not come under the category of military. [It] came under the category of a research ship. That is how [we] permitted the ship to come to Hambantota,” he said, explaining his government’s decision.

Hambantota port, close to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, was built by state-run China Merchants Port Holdings as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Sri Lanka leased the port to China for 99 years in 2017 after it was unable to repay the loan for the project.

Wickremesinghe, elected president on July 20 after his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned, said there was no problem with loaning the port to China. “This is nothing new,” he said, pointing out that countries such as Australia and South Africa too have leased ports.

Former navy chief Admiral (retired) Arun Prakash said Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean will only increase, and India should be focused on building its own capabilities and making more friends in the neighbourhood.

“You will see more and more Chinese naval activity in the region. How long can we keep protesting? The concerns about the Chinese space-tracking ship docking in Hambantota are overstated. Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and it has ties with China. Our ships also operate in the South China Sea,” he said, adding that the high seas are always open to snooping activity.

There’s not much to be concerned about a Chinese vessel visiting a neighbouring country’s port, he said. “Its activities in the high seas may be more of a cause for concern.”

In 2019, a Chinese vessel that intruded into Indian waters near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was repelled by the Indian Navy. The Chinese research vessel, Shi Yan 1, was spotted near Port Blair and was suspected to be carrying out an ocean survey in India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Every coastal country’s EEZ extends to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its shores and the country has exclusive rights to all resources in the water, including oil, natural gas and fish. The Indian Navy’s stand at the times was “if you have to do anything in our EEZ, you have to notify us and take permission”.

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