China Sends Survey Vessel to Sri Lankan Port it Controls, Irking India

The warship formations of China and Russia sail through the Tsugaru Strait during the naval exercise Joint Sea-2021 on October 18, 2021 in the Western part of the Pacific Ocean. (Sun Zifa/China News Service via Getty Images)
Sun Zifa/China News Service via Getty Images

China recently deployed a survey vessel to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port — which Colombo ceded to Beijing on a 99-year lease in 2017 after defaulting on debt to China — Reuters reported on Thursday, noting that the vessel’s deployment to Sri Lanka has irked nearby India which denounced the Chinese research mission as a possible threat to New Delhi’s “security and economic interests.”

The Chinese scientific research vessel “Yuan Wang 5” was en route to the southern Sri Lankan port of Hambantota as of July 28 and was expected to arrive on August 11, according to Reuters. The news agency cited data from Refinitiv Eikon, a financial market information platform, and a Sri Lankan consulting firm with Chinese government ties called the “Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka.”

The Sri Lankan consulting firm stated on its website that the Chinese survey vessel “will enter Hambantota port on August 11 for a week. It is expected to leave on August 17 after replenishment. The Yuan Wang 5 will conduct Space tracking, satellite control and research tracking in the north western part of the Indian Ocean region through August and September.”

Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) allows the Chinese government to fund new infrastructure projects or develop older ones in lower-income nations. The projects are often based on predatory loan structures that may push already struggling economies further into debt to Beijing. This was the case when Sri Lanka was forced to sign over control of its Hambantota Port in 2017 after it defaulted on debt owed to China’s government through BRI loans.

India’s government expressed concern on July 28 about the prospect of a Chinese scientific research vessel docking at Hambantota Port on August 11. New Delhi suggested that it views such an act as a direct threat not only to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty but also to that of India. Sri Lanka is a relatively small island nation located a short distance off India’s southeasternmost coast in the Indian Ocean.

“We are aware of reports of a proposed visit by this vessel to Hambantota in August,” Indian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Arindam Bagchi told reporters at a regular press briefing on Thursday when asked about the matter.

“The government carefully monitors any developments having a bearing on India’s security and economic interests, and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them,” he said, as quoted by the Press Trust of India (PTI).

Sri Lanka’s economy nosedived around early March after the import-dependent nation essentially ran out of foreign currency reserves used to purchase vital goods. The financial turmoil caused severe shortages of food, fuel, and medicine that, in turn, spurred citizens to protest en masse against the government, which they blamed for economic mismanagement. The country’s former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned on July 14 after fleeing Colombo for the Maldives and then Singapore.

New Delhi is heavily invested in protecting Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, which it likely views as a buffer between that of India and an ever-encroaching China. India’s government has provided Sri Lanka with nearly $4 billion in financial support this year alone, Reuters noted on July 28.

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