New Delhi fears its bigger and more powerful rival China will use Hambantota port as a military base in India’s back yard.
Sri Lanka says it has asked China to defer a planned visit of a Chinese ship to the island country after initially approving its arrival this week, yielding to diplomatic pressure from neighbour India to keep the military vessel out.
The Yuan Wang 5 was due to arrive on Thursday at the Chinese-built and leased Hambantota port in Sri Lanka’s south for five days for replenishment. It is currently sailing in the east Indian Ocean, according to Refinitiv Eikon.
Foreign security analysts describe the Yuan Wang 5 as one of China’s latest generation space-tracking ships, used to monitor satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
The Pentagon says Yuan Wang ships are operated by the Strategic Support Force of the People’s Liberation Army.
New Delhi fears its bigger and more powerful rival China will use Hambantota as a military base in India’s back yard. The $1.5bn port is near the main shipping route from Asia to Europe.
Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said on July 12 it had approved the ship’s arrival for this month.
“Subsequently in light of the need for further consultations, the ministry has communicated to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Colombo to defer the visit of the said vessel to the Hambantota port,” the ministry said in a statement on Monday.
India said late last month it was monitoring the planned visit of the ship, adding that New Delhi would protect its security and economic interests. India also lodged a verbal protest with the Sri Lankan government.
Asked about the controversy over the ship, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular news briefing that China’s relations with Sri Lanka were “not targeted at third parties”.
Wenbin told reporters it is “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called ‘security concerns’ to pressure Sri Lanka”.
“As Sri Lanka grapples with economic and political difficulties, to grossly interfere in Sri Lanka’s normal exchange and cooperation with other countries is to exploit its vulnerability, which is morally irresponsible and against the basic norms governing international relations,” he said.
“We urge the relevant parties to see China’s marine scientific research activities in a rational light and stop disrupting normal exchange and cooperation between China and Sri Lanka,” he added.
Relations between India and China have been strained since armed clashes on their Himalayan border two years ago killed at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers.
Both China and India have tried to expand their influence in Sri Lanka, which is facing its worst economic crisis in its independent history, though India has provided more help to it this year than any other nation.
At the same time, China’s agreement to restructure its infrastructure loans to Sri Lanka is vital for the country to be able to reach a bailout programme with the International Monetary Fund.
China backed Sri Lanka during a civil war with ethnic Tamil rebels and defended it from accusations of gross human rights abuses. Since the end of the war in 2009, China has lent Sri Lanka billions of dollars for development projects.