The Sri Lankan government said on Saturday that it has allowed a high-tech Chinese research ship to dock at the southern port of Hambantota from August 16 till 22 for “replenishment purposes,” days after Colombo asked Beijing to defer the port call amidst India’s concern over the vessel’s presence in its neighbourhood.
The Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship, ‘Yuan Wang 5’, was earlier scheduled to arrive on Thursday and remain at the port until August 17 for replenishment.
However, the Sri Lankan foreign ministry requested the Chinese embassy in Colombo last week to postpone the vessel’s visit following security concerns raised by India. Subsequently, the vessel did not dock at the Hambantota port on Thursday as planned.
In a statement, the foreign ministry said that it has conveyed the government’s clearance “for the deferred arrival of the vessel from August 16-22” to the Chinese embassy in Colombo.
“It is Sri Lanka’s intention to safeguard the legitimate interests of all countries, in keeping with its international obligations,” the statement said.
Detailing the sequence of the events, the ministry said that on June 28, China informed the government that ‘Yuan Wang 5’ will pay a port call at Hambantota from Aug 11-17 for replenishment purposes.
“While no rotation of personnel was to take place during the call, the Government of Sri Lanka was requested to provide necessary assistance and positive consideration to the request,” it said.
After getting security clearance on July 7 from the defence ministry and No Objection Letter from the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) “for the use of frequencies and communication equipment subject to non-interference and non-protection basis”, the foreign ministry permitted the vessel to make a portcall at Hambantota for replenishment purposes.
“The following conditions highlighted by the Ministry of Defence were also stated — keeping the Automatic Identification System (AIS) switched on within the EEZ (exclusive economic zone) of Sri Lanka and no scientific research to be conducted in Sri Lankan waters,” the statement said.
“Subsequently, in light of certain concerns raised with the ministry”, the government on August 5 requested the Chinese embassy to defer the visit of the vessel to Hambantota port “until the conduct of further consultations on the matter”, it said.
The government has since engaged in extensive consultations at a high level through diplomatic channels with all parties concerned, with a view to resolving the matter in a spirit of friendship, mutual trust and constructive dialogue, taking into account the interests of all parties concerned, and in line with the principle of sovereign equality of states, the statement said.
On August 12, the Chinese embassy applied for clearance for the new dates — Aug 16 to 22 — “for replenishment purposes of the vessel”.
“Having considered all material in place”, the clearance to the Chinese embassy “was conveyed for the deferred arrival of the vessel from Aug 16-22,” the statement said.
The ship was awaiting clearance to enter from its location 600 nautical miles away east of Hambantota.
Meanwhile, the matter created much controversy in the island nation with the Opposition blaming the government for what they termed mishandling of the issue.
The southern deep-sea port of Hambantota is considered strategically important for its location. The port has been developed largely with Chinese loans.
India has said it carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests.
New Delhi is concerned about the possibility of the ship’s tracking systems attempting to snoop on Indian installations while being on its way to the Sri Lankan port.
India has traditionally taken a stern view of Chinese military vessels in the Indian Ocean and has protested such visits with Sri Lanka in the past.
The ties between India and Sri Lanka came under strain after Colombo gave permission to a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to dock in one of its ports in 2014.
India’s concerns have been focused on Hambantota port in particular. In 2017, Colombo leased the southern port to China Merchant Port Holdings for 99 years, after Sri Lanka was unable to keep its loan repayment commitments, fanning fears over the potential use of the port for military purposes.
On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called “security concerns” to pressure Sri Lanka.
India on Friday rejected China’s “insinuations” that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the planned visit by the Chinese research vessel but asserted that it will take decisions based on its security concerns.
External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said Sri Lanka, as a sovereign country, makes its own independent decisions and noted that India would make its judgment on its security concerns based on the prevailing situation in the region, especially in the border areas.
China is the main creditor of Sri Lanka with investment in infrastructure.
Debt restructuring of Chinese loans would be key to the island’s success in the ongoing talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
India, on the other hand, has been Sri Lanka’s lifeline in the ongoing economic crisis.
It has been at the forefront of extending economic assistance of nearly USD 4 billion to Sri Lanka during the year as the island nation is grappling with the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.