China’s grip on Sri Lanka exposed – ship Yuan Wang 5 to dock in Hambantota; India suspects it is a spy ship

A person familiar with the situation told AFP in the first week of August that Sri Lanka's foreign ministry had ordered the Chinese embassy not to allow the Yuan Wang 5 to enter the port. But, the latest permission shows China has better control over Sri Lanka than India. 

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India, portal publishing news and current affairs. He holds an M.B.A in International Business from the Maharishi University of Management, Iowa, USA. Twitter: @chackojoseph *views are Personal.

Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry announced on August 13 that it had allowed the Chinese ship Yuan Wang 5 to enter its port. Neighboring India has expressed concern that the vessel could spy on its military installations.

Yuan Wang 5 is described as a survey and observation ship on ship information sites, but Indian media says it is a dual-use “spy ship” that is used to track satellites, especially to support intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch tests. It is reported that Yuan Wang 5 was scheduled to call at Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which China controls, on the 11th. 

According to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Yuan Wang 5 will arrive in Hambantota Port on the 16th and remain for six days. It also requires automated identification systems (AIS) to be turned on within Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and prohibits scientific research within the country’s territorial seas.

Sri Lanka had asked China to delay the arrival of the ‘spy ship.’

Sri Lanka recently asked China to indefinitely postpone the arrival of the Chinese ship Yuan Wang 5 to Sri Lanka. A government source had said. Indian media reported that the ship was a “spy ship”, and the Indian government is known to have put pressure on Sri Lanka.

According to marinetraffic, a website that provides vessel location information, the vessel will depart from the port of Jiangyin in eastern China’s Jiangsu province to a Chinese-operated Hambantota ferry in Sri Lanka. It is heading to the port and will arrive on the 11th.

A person familiar with the situation told AFP in the first week of August that Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry had ordered the Chinese embassy not to allow the Yuan Wang 5 to enter the port. But, the latest permission shows China has better control over Sri Lanka than India. 

 Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe told party leaders last week that Yuan Wang 5 will not dock on Saturday as planned.

Sri Lanka’s former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, departed the country last month and resigned as it faced its worst economic crisis in history. His older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, took out substantial loans from China during his administration from 2005 to 2015.

Yuan Wang-class tracking ship

The Yuan Wang – class ship (Long View”) is used to track and support satellites and ICBMs by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (Plan) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Yuan Wang class is not a separate class with an identical design but rather a group of different designs grouped into one series and having the same name.

The Type 718 tracking ships Yuan Wang 1 and Yuan Wang 2 were estimated to have a displacement of around 21,000 tonnes when fully laden, a crew of approximately 470, and a length of approximately 190 metres (620 ft). Their propulsion system consists of a single Sulzer diesel engine with a peak speed of 20 knots (37 km/h).

Prime Minister Zhou Enlai proposed this class in 1965, and Mao Zedong personally approved it in 1968. The first two ships of this type, Yuan Wang 1 and Yuan Wang 2, were built and launched at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai on  September 1, 1978, and August 31, 1977, respectively. Xu Xueyan is the principal designer of this class. For the first time, the PRC was able to track launches of satellites that did not fly over their country.

The first exploratory voyage of the two ships’ was conducted in May 1980. Yuan Wang 1 and Yuan Wang 2 were upgraded in 1986 to enable PRC foreign satellite launches after being employed to track the launches of communications satellites of their own design. These ships have been retired.

Two further ships of this kind have been constructed. The Yuan Wang 3 was the first of these, entering service on October 20, 1995. The third generation Yuan Wang 3 can reach speeds of up to 20 knots, a range of 18,000 nautical miles and a cruising speed of 18 knots.

China State Shipbuilding Corporation built the tracking ship Yuan Wang 4, which was handed to China Satellite Launch and Tracking Administration on July 18, 1999. It was built out of a previously used ship, the research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10. Xiang Yang Hong 10 research vessel was originally designed in February 1971, construction began in July 1975, and entered service in October 1979. The Yuan Wang 4, powered by 9,000 hp diesel engines, has a range of 100 days and can reach speeds of up to 20 knots and a cruising range of 18,000 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 18 knots.

 It was hit by a Harbor Sea 666 (Gang Hai 666, 666) coal tank, causing a major fire at the collision point on the 4th fuel tank. The fire was extinguished four hours later without any casualties, but the equipment on board was severely damaged beyond repair. Yuan Wang 4 was subsequently converted into a DF-21 ballistic anti-ship missile target ship to simulate an aircraft carrier target when it entered the Jiangyin shipyard on April 15 2010, for repairs and was eventually destroyed in the second half of 2010.

In early 2007, two additional Yuan Wang-class boats were launched in Shanghai, Yuan Wang 5 and Yuan Wang 6. Both the ships were on duty during the Shenzhou 7 mission.

Yuan Wang 5 is the third generation tracking ship and entered service on September 29, 2007. Built by the Jiangnan Shipyard, the Yuan Wang 5 has a displacement of 25,000 tons and can withstand wind loads of up to 12 while also performing duties at sea state 6. It is designed by the 701st Institute of China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSIC).

Yuan Wang 6, like its sister ship Yuan Wang 5, is also the third generation tracking ship of the Yuan Wang series. Designed by the 708th Research Institute, construction began in April 2006, and the ship was launched on March 16, 2007. The ship was commissioned on April 12 2008, and fully operational in July 2008. The information system is on board, and the electricity generated by the ship is enough to supply the city with 300,000 inhabitants. 

Yuan Wang 7 was built in 2016. It has a carrying capacity of 9000 DWT and a current draught of 8 metres. Her overall length (LOA) is 225 metres, and she is 27 metres wide.

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