India had earlier raised the issue with Lankan authorities in Colombo and sought to know the purpose of the visit. The research vessel Yuan Wang 5 was scheduled to arrive in Hambantota, a port built by the Chinese, on August 11 and conduct “space tracking, satellite control and research tracking in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean region’’. The issue had been raised in India’s Parliament and concerns expressed about the likely activities of the ship.
“Sri Lanka first disregarded India’s security interests by agreeing to let a Chinese military ship to dock at a commercial port, despite knowing that the surveillance vessel was involved in mapping the ocean floor for potential anti-submarine operations against the Indian Navy. Only after India protested Sri Lanka’s action did Colombo urge China to defer the ship’s arrival date,’’ said strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney.
“Letting the Chinese military vessel dock at Hambantota would have compounded Sri Lanka’s other India-unfriendly actions since 2014, when two Chinese submarines separately docked at a new, Chinese-built container terminal at Colombo Port,’’ he added.
TOI had reported on August 2 that India had taken up the issue with Sri Lanka. The joint approval by the foreign and defence ministries for the ship to dock at the Hambantota post was given days before the new Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed office. China had defended the visit asking all “relevant parties’’ not to interfere with “normal and legitimate maritime activities’’.
Under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was seen as responsible for the island nation’s economic embrace of Beijing, Chinese submarine Changzheng 2 was twice allowed to dock at the Colombo port despite protests by India. A 1987 bilateral agreement clearly says that Sri Lanka will not make available any port in the country for military use by a foreign country in a manner that’s prejudicial to India’s interests. The agreement also calls upon the 2 countries to not allow the use of their respective territories for activities that can undermine each other’s security.
The Hambantota port, which failed to generate enough traffic leading to poor growth rate, has for long been seen as an example of Sri Lanka’s reckless spending that led to the economic crisis it’s facing now. With not enough commercial traffic, it’s also feared that China will look to use it as a naval facility.