A Chinese spy ship docked in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, leading to controversy as India was staunchly against it in high decibels. Yuan Wang 5, a tracking vessel capable of satellite, rocket, and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, has since left Sri Lankan waters after a brief docking for “replenishment” from August 16 to 22.
Blaming Sri Lanka for the docking of the ship immediately followed in India. According to the narrative, Sri Lanka is “ungrateful,” that it deceived us despite our “generous help” in its hour of trouble, and that it cannot be “trusted.” Its decision to let the Chinese surveillance ship land at its port has been described as a “diplomatic slap” to New Delhi.
There may be valid worries about the Chinese spy ship’s formidable surveillance capabilities and the hazards it presents to India’s military facilities by landing in our vicinity. However, should we be blaming Sri Lanka for it?
Sri Lanka did a balancing act by taking the Indian concerns and asking the Chinese not to perform any ‘scientific research.’ The Chinese spy ship was refuelled and let go earning some desperately needed mullah and maintaining the goodwill of the Chinese Money lender. Chinese felt slighted that the ship was initially given permission and then withdrawn. For Sri Lanka, it antagonized its money lender and immediate aid giver. All three parties are unhappy with the incident.
According to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a foreign warship has the same right to be in the Indian Ocean as a similar Indian vessel has in the South China Sea. Vessels have the right of “innocent passage” even in another state’s territorial waters and mooring at foreign ports with a prior agreement. The 1907 Hague Convention permits entry for warships of belligerents into neutral ports for limited durations, even during wartime.
However, China does not take it kindly when it comes to the South China Sea, and the Indians reciprocated with the same generosity earning the Chinese the same kind of bad taste in the mouth as it dishes out to others.
Yuan Wang 5 was one of the foreign naval ships that visited Sri Lankan ports, which regularly replenished foreign naval ships, including vessels from even Pakistan. But none of these naval ships presents a threat to India. However, Yuan Wang 5 is not the only controversial Chinese ship that passed through the Sri Lankan port. In November 2014, Changzheng-2, the Type 091 first-generation nuclear-powered attack submarine, docked in Colombo. This caused a similar uproar in India. The Chinese submarine was enforcing piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and it was hard for India to believe that.
India also objected to the frequency of Chinese military vessels visiting Sri Lanka. In addition, India had already expressed worry over an aircraft repair facility being developed in the eastern port city of Trincomalee, which India regards as a key site in terms of national security.
A 1987 agreement between India and Sri Lanka states that respective territories, including Trincomalee, would not be utilized for actions that are detrimental to the unity, integrity, and security of the other.
According to reports, the Sri Lankan government turned down China’s request to dock a submarine in Colombo harbour in 2017. Beijing supposedly wanted one of its submarines (ostensibly on its way to the Gulf of Aden for ‘anti-piracy’ patrols) to make a logistical stopover in a Sri Lankan port, but Colombo is said to have discreetly rejected it, and the submarine is said to have been redirected to Karachi as a result. The incident cannot be confirmed.
However, there were references to the Chinese submarine tender ships docked in Sri Lankan ports, indicating the presence of PLA Navy diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) or even nuclear submarines in the near-seas of Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan ports, especially the Colombo Port, as a significant marine centre in the South Asian area, connect goods originating in and bound for Europe, East and South Asia, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa. The massive Colombo Port extension was one of several marine infrastructure expansions that correspond with the China Merchants Group’s (CMG) ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) programme. The recently developed Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka is one of the most important players in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The Hambantota Port is just 10 to 12 nautical miles from the main Indian Ocean Sea lane joining the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits.
The Chinese are known to have complete control of the Colombo Port City, as well as a 99 year lease of the Hambantota Port and 15,000 acres of the adjacent territory. Not just ports, the Chinese have also control over the airports and other infrastructure through their funding.
More such Chinese naval ships will pass through the Sri Lankan ports in the future, and India will have to live with the fact or do something about it.