Sl allowing Chinese ‘Spy Ship’ to dock at Hambantota jeopardizes Indio-Lanka ties!

Indian media had reported that India had raised the issue of the Chinese research vessel that is scheduled to arrive at the Hambantota Port, with President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

India had raised concerns after the Ministry of Defence in Colombo confirmed the ship’s arrival, despite New Delhi clearly outlining its concerns regarding the arrival of this Chinese ‘Spy’ ship.

However, neither the Indian mission in Colombo nor the Sri Lankan President’s  office have issued official statements regarding the matter being raised at the highest level by India.

Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry initially denied any knowledge of the arrival of the Chinese vessel ‘Yuan Wang 5’ but later retracted the denial and said that the vessel was cleared to dock at the Hambantota Harbour for refueling.

The Chinese vessel involved in space and satellite tracking is scheduled to dock at the Chinese-built Hambantota Port, from August 11 to 17.

The confirmation not only sparked serious concern in New Delhi, but also raised eyebrows in Colombo too, coming two days after Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi’s media remarks that India “carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests”. China has defended the ship’s visit and asked “relevant parties” to “refrain from interfering” with its “legitimate maritime activities,” the media had reported.

However, it is uncertain how permission was granted for the Chinese ship to enter Hambantota at a time when a full government is not fully established in Sri Lanka. This move is clearly not in Sri Lanka’s best interest given the amount of help extended by India during the recent past to overcome serious financial difficulties.

Sri Lanka must be careful not to antagonize India as any reluctance from the Indian side to help Sri Lanka is bound to aggravate the already damaged Sri Lankan economy as India has particularly strong influence on multilateral creditors and the IMF.

Several Opposition parties have raised concerns over Sri Lanka allowing the Chinese vessel to dock in Sri Lanka and the dire consequences the country may have to face in the event India decides to pull back its assistance to Sri Lanka.

Members of Sri Lanka’s political opposition have urged the government not to “accentuate” India’s strategic concerns, especially at a time when Colombo is counting on urgent economic assistance from both New Delhi and Beijing to tide over the island’s economic crisis.

Vice President of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) P. Digmbaram stated, “Sri Lanka should maintain diplomatic relationships with all countries including India and China and should become a centre for resolving diplomatic rows.”

The importance of diplomatic ties between Sri Lanka and India was amply demonstrated with the Indian assistance which Sri Lanka received during the current crisis.

However, Minister of External Affairs of India S. Jaishankar assured that India will continue to stand with the people of Sri Lanka.

In a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry, Minister Jaishankar said they work based on the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.

India has been supporting Sri Lanka through aid and credit lines over the past few months helping Sri Lanka face the economic crisis.

Meanwhile, India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi last week said that India carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests.

The Defence Ministry said the vessel will be in Hambantota from the 11th to the 17th of August, mainly for replenishment, including fuel.

According to the Defence Ministry,  the Chinese research vessel, Yuan Wang 5, was granted permission to enter the Hambantota Port after a thorough assessment.

Defence Ministry Spokesman Col. Nalin Herath had told  the BBC that the Defence Ministry on the 30th of July confirmed that the vessel had sought clearance to call at the Hambantota Port in August.

Col. Herath said such vessels periodically come from various countries such as India, China, Japan, and Australia terming it as nothing unusual.

India’s concerns are understandable given the fact that given its strategic location at Hambantota, which is also close to international shipping lanes, the Chinese ship will gain access to Southern Indian ports in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh which are vital installations along the coast could be vulnerable to Chinese surveillance.

New Delhi traditionally wields influence across the Indian Ocean region and the docking of the Yuan Wang 5 at the Chinese-built and leased Hambantota has sparked fresh tensions between India and China. Already relations between the two nations have been frosty since the clashes between its military in Galwan in 2020 that triggered a protracted and yet-unresolved territorial dispute, the India media had reported.

Indian concerns main arise from the fact that China’s inroads into the India Ocean region is an attempt to lay a ‘string of pearls’ from Myanmar to eastern Africa to protect its trade interests which has directly challenged India’s powers. There are fears that the ports and other infrastructure that China has built along the string of pearls could also be used as military bases.

It is a known fact that many of the China-funded ‘assets’ have become debt traps – Hambantota is one such example. The port was leased to China Merchant Port Holdings, after Sri Lanka was unable to keep its loan repayment commitments.

It is also widely believed that given Sri Lanka’s indebtedness to China over the loans it has received, China is trying to blackmail Sri Lanka and bully them into allowing them manipulate the country’s strategic locations.

The visit of this Chinese vessel is bound to put a strain on the cordial ties between India and Sri Lanka, particularly after India granted huge financial support to Sri Lanka to address its financial issues. India is the only country that helped Sri Lanka to survive during its foreign exchange crisis.

In the event India’s security is challenged as a result of this Chinese vessel being allowed to dock at the Hambantota Port, Sri Lanka will no doubt have to be ready to face the repercussions.

Sri Lanka’s closeness to China has financed the corrupt practices of the Rajapaksa regime and dragged Sri Lanka into a crisis. This incident may further fuel protests in the country which is planned for the 09th of August.

India has extended $4 billion in financial assistance to Sri Lanka this year alone with more aid and credit lines under discussion.

Sri Lanka has also sought assistance from China, which is helping in debt restructuring so that the country can access IMF aid.

Sri Lanka’s position is precarious and is ‘caught up between the devil and the deep blue sea’.

However, the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration has laid the blame on the previous government, claiming they had given the approval for the spy ship to dock in Sri Lanka.

But this is not the first time that This is not the first time there has been turbulence in the Indian Ocean due to Chinese vessels’ port call at Sri Lanka, and possibly not the last.

Although the Rajapaksa regime is blamed for welcoming China, current President Ranil Wickremesinghe was part and parcel in leasing the Hambantota port to China for 99 years during the Good Governance regime.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka has to carefully manage this situation without angering Delhi or Beijing as it depends on both countries for assistance at this moment. However, considering the fact that without India’s assistance over the past several months Sri Lanka would have collapsed by now, the country must ensure that they are not part of any Chinese plan to snoop on India’s military or security developments.

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