Explainer: A Chinese spy ship is due to dock in Sri Lanka’s port on August 16 – here’s why India is watching closely

A Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking vessel will dock at the port of Hambantota on the southern coast of Sri Lanka for a week starting August 16, PTI reported on Saturday (August 13), citing sources. Sri Lanka, which had previously asked China to postpone the arrival of the high-tech vessel following concerns raised by India, allowed it to dock on Saturday, according to the report.

Hambantota Port is a commercially unviable project that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa built in his home district with borrowed Chinese money, which the government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were forced to hand over to China in 2017 under a 99-year lease against a $1.1 billion debt they were unable to repay. Sri Lanka also ceded more than 15,000 acres of land around the port to the Chinese. Sri Lankan officials said at the time that their total debt to China was around $8 billion.

What is this Chinese ship that will dock at Hambantota?

The vessel is a Chinese research and survey vessel called “Yuan Wang 5”. China uses its Yuan Wang-class ships to track launches of satellites, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). China has seven such tracking vessels, capable of operating in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. The ships supplement Beijing’s land-based tracking stations.

Port of Hambantota on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. (Google Maps)

According to a US Department of Defense report, these space support ships are operated by the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), which is “a theater command-level organization established to centralize the strategic space of PLA, cyber, electronics, information, communications, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities”.

The Yuan Wang 5 was built at China’s Jiangnan Shipyard and entered service in September 2007. The 222-meter-long, 25.2-meter-wide vessel features state-of-the-art onboard tracking technology to transoceanic aerospace observation. Its latest surveillance mission was the launch of China’s “Long March 5B” rocket last month. He was also recently involved in maritime surveillance of the launch of China’s Tiangong space station’s first laboratory module.

According to the Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka (BRISL) website, [ https://brisl.org/yuan-wang-5-visit-to-hambantota-and-china-space-program/ ] the development of Chinese Yuan Wang-class ships was proposed in 1965 by Premier Zhou Enlai and was approved by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1968. Yuan Wang 1, 2, 3, and 4 ships followed the launch of the ship Shenzhou Space Laboratory in November 1999 from four points in the world’s oceans, and the Yuan Wang 7 was used for the launch of the Shenzhou 11 and Tiangong 2 space laboratory manned mission in 2016.

And why is this ship heading for Hambantota?

While news of the ship heading for Hambantota emerged earlier this month, BRISL had said the Yuan Wang 5 would enter port on August 11 and likely leave on August 17 after resupplying. According to the August 13 PTI report, the vessel was located 600 nautical miles east of Hambantota and has now been postponed to enter port on August 16.

“The Yuan Wang 5 will carry out satellite control and research monitoring of Chinese satellites in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean region in August and September,” BRISL said on its website earlier. He added, “The visit of ‘Yuan Wang 5’ to Hambantota Port will be an excellent opportunity for Sri Lanka and regional developing countries to learn and develop their own space programs.”

Why is India concerned about this development?

The Yuan Wang 5 is a powerful scouting vessel whose significant air range – around 750km – means several ports in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh could be on China’s radar. Reports have claimed that several vital facilities in southern India could be at risk of being spied on.

Speaking about the development, External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi had earlier said, “We are aware of reports of a proposed visit by this vessel to Hambantota in August…The government is carefully monitoring any development. affecting the security and economic interests of India and take all necessary measures to safeguard them.

In response, China’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement reported by Reuters, said: “China hopes relevant parties will see and properly report China’s marine scientific research activities and refrain from interfering with normal and lawful maritime activities”.

On Aug. 8, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was “completely unwarranted for some countries to invoke so-called ‘security concerns’ to pressure Sri Lanka.” On August 12, Bagchi, responding to questions from reporters, said: “…We reject insinuations…Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and makes its own decisions independently…As regards our concerns when it comes to security… listen, it’s a sovereign right of every country. We will make the best judgment in our own interest. This naturally takes into account the situation in the region, especially in our border areas…”

What is the strategic importance of the port of Hambantota?

The deep water port, the second largest in Sri Lanka, lies on the route connecting Southeast Asia with Africa and West Asia. For China, this is an important step in its “Belt and Road” initiative. Its development was largely funded by China, and its 2017 takeover was described by The New York Times in an investigative report as “one of the starkest examples of China’s ambitious use of loans and aid to gain influence in the world – and its willingness to play hardball to cash in.” China has helped fund at least 35 ports around the world over the past decade, according to the report, published in 2018.

The NYT report quotes unnamed Indian officials expressing concern that “Sri Lanka is struggling so badly that the Chinese government may be able to withhold debt relief in return for its military using assets like the Hambantota Port – although the final lease agreement prohibits military activity there without Sri Lanka’s invitation.” This long-awaited economic collapse of Sri Lanka took place this year and ousted the Rajapaksa brothers from power.

“The only way to justify the investment in Hambantota is from a national security perspective – that they will bring in the People’s Liberation Army,” the NYT report said, quoting the former Indian foreign secretary and national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon.

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