Sri Lanka faces diplomatic concerns with expected arrival of Chinese ship 

COLOMBO: The planned visit of a Chinese ship to Sri Lanka has sparked diplomatic concerns on the island nation, with the government in Colombo requesting that Beijing delay the vessel’s arrival next week.  

The Chinese research and survey vessel, Yuan Wang 5, is on its way to Sri Lanka’s second-largest port, Hambantota, where it is expected to arrive on Aug. 11. The $1.5 billion port, located near the main shipping route from Asia to Europe, had been built and leased by Beijing. 

The ship’s scheduled arrival had sparked concerns, including from India, over China’s influence in Sri Lanka, with the country attracting interest from the two regional giants due to its strategic location. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs said on July 28 that New Delhi “carefully monitors any developments having a bearing on India’s security and economic interests, and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them.” 

Amid concerns that it could affect Sri Lanka’s diplomatic relations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo requested “that the arrival date of the vessel Yuan Wang 5 in Hambantota be deferred until further consultations are made on this matter,” according to a report from The Sunday Morning. 

“The Indian Ocean is of strategic importance to all nations in the South Asian region, and the docking of a spy ship poses a major threat to maritime security in the region,” Rishad Bathiudeen, a former Sri Lankan minister of industry and commerce, told Arab News.

“The entry and exit of any ship into the territorial waters of Sri Lanka is not only an issue of Sri Lankan sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also poses security concerns for other neighboring countries,” Bathiudeen said. 

Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka, a consulting firm based in the country, said on its website that the Yuan Wang 5 would be in Hambantota for a week. According to the firm, the vessel “will conduct satellite control and research tracking” in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean region. 

The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka did not immediately respond to Arab News’ request for comment. 

China is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest lenders and has financed infrastructure projects like airports, roads, and railways under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. In 2017, Colombo formally handed over commercial activities in its main southern port to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease after struggling to repay debts.  

As Sri Lanka battles its worst economic crisis since gaining independence in 1948, India has provided the country of 22 million people nearly $4 billion in support.  

Diplomatic relations between India and China have been strained since clashes involving troops along the remote Himalayan border in 2020 killed at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers. The incident led to a massive troop build-up on both sides.  

Mohamed Zuhair, Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to Iran and president’s counsel, told Arab News that the country’s relations with both India and China are “very crucial.”  

But as India’s immediate neighbor, Zuhair said, Colombo must be cautious as a good relationship with New Delhi “is also something very sensitive that we should protect.

“We need not antagonize either of these countries,” Zuhair said. “Particularly India, we need to maintain a very good relationship; does not mean we antagonize China in the process, (but) in the vessel matter, China should accept the request of Sri Lanka to put it off.”