Anchor: Saptarshi Basak
Video Editor: Rajbir Singh
Yuan Wang 5. Sounds like the name of a punk-rock band, but it’s actually a Chinese ‘spy’ ship, a ’research and survey’ vessel that successfully docked at Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka on 16 August.
The docking of the ship is being perceived as a big diplomatic defeat for India. When asked about India’s concerns, Qi Zhenhong, Beijing’s envoy in Sri Lanka, told reporters, “I don’t know, you should ask the Indian friends… I don’t know. Maybe this is life.”
Indeed, maybe this is life. Before we get into all of that, however, here’s quick timeline of how the drama, which began in late July, unfolded.
A statement on the website of Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka (BRISL), “Yuan Wang 5, which set sail on 13 July, was expected to dock at Hambantota from 11-17 August for ‘replenishment’.” But Sri Lanka denied any such plans, with a Defence Ministry spokesperson telling The Hindu on 28 July that there was no confirmation of such a vessel calling at Hambantota Port.
At this point, India, via the Ministry of External Affairs, merely stated that it carefully monitors any development having a bearing on India's security and economic interests.
On 30 July, the drama escalated. After the initial denial, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry stated that "the vessel will be in Hambantota from 11-17 August mainly for replenishment, including fuel.” China immediately followed up, in what appeared to be a message to India, that “relevant parties” should refrain from interfering with its “legitimate maritime activities.”
More drama unfolded on 6 August. Five days before the estimate time of arrival of the ship, Sri Lanka's defence ministry requested the Chinese Embassy in Colombo to delay it. Then the Chinese embassy in Colombo reportedly sought an urgent meeting with the Sri Lankan officials to discuss the foreign ministry's request.
And despite all the back-and-forth, the ship reached Hambantota Port on 16 August with active cooperation from the Sri Lankan side.
What’s So Special About This Ship Again?
China uses its Yuan Wang category of ships to track satellite, rocket, and intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Of course, Beijing has said that the “marine scientific research” activities of the vessel are “consistent with international law” and did not impact “any other country’s security interests.”
The concern that New Delhi has flagged, however, is that China will conduct satellite control and research tracking in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean region thereby posing a security threat to India.
Even the department of defence has informed that the ship is part of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), and is “a theatre command-level organization established to centralise the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, information, communications, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities.”
Sri Lanka is pretending that nothing is wrong, despite first denying reports of the ship coming to them, then deferring the arrival, and then finally allowing it in. The government spokesperson has said that Colombo is granting the same port facilities to China that it extends to all other countries, because all countries are important to it.
It’s Not About the Ship
It is less about the ship and more about geopolitics. Sri Lanka is going through its worst economic crisis since independence. So far, India has provided nearly $4 billion in aid to Sri Lanka, which includes fuel shipments, medicines, foodstuff, and credit.
Despite such a situation in which India has kept Sri Lanka afloat, Colombo's defiance of India's security concerns is worth noting. Chinese loans account for about 10% of Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt, but India has indeed emerged as the island's biggest supporter amid the current crisis.
Nevertheless, India's clout in the country is clearly still not as much as that of China.
Look at what Brahma Chellaney, a former member of India's National Security Advisory Board, has to say about it. He tweeted, "When a small, bankrupt nation like Sri Lanka delivers a diplomatic slap to New Delhi by hosting a Chinese surveillance ship at its commercial port of Hambantota, it is a stunning reminder of both India's feckless foreign policy and receding influence in its strategic backyard.”
On the other hand, The Washington Post quoted former Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka as saying, "Sri Lanka could expect an angry reaction from the Indian government, which has long suspected that the Hambantota port could eventually be used by China for civilian and military purposes.”
It is important to remember that the port was handed over to China by Sri Lanka on a 99-year lease after Sri Lanka failed to repay Chinese loans. India has always viewed the port as something that China would instrumentalise to target India.
So, New Delhi’s concerns about the ship seem legitimate, but there is a larger story here. A story about who is the boss of the region. Who do the smaller countries listen to? And as of now, given this situation, the answer seems to be China, and not India.