The Sri Lankan government granted permission on Saturday for a controversial Chinese research vessel to visit the island, despite neighbouring India’s concerns that it could spy on New Delhi’s military installations, officials said. International shipping and analytics sites describe the Yuan Wang 5 as a research and survey vessel, but Indian media reports that it is a dual-use spy ship.
New Delhi is wary of Beijing’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and influence in Sri Lanka, viewing both as firmly within its sphere of influence. The Yuan Wang 5 was scheduled to call at Sri Lanka’s Chinese-run Hambantota port on August 11, but Colombo asked Beijing to postpone the visit indefinitely due to India’s objections.
However, Nirmal P Silva, Sri Lanka’s harbour master, stated that he had received foreign ministry approval for the ship to call at Hambantota from August 16 to 22. ‘ I received my diplomatic clearance today. We will collaborate with the vessel’s appointed local agent to ensure port logistics ‘, Silva told AFP. Foreign ministry sources confirmed that Colombo had renewed permission for the visit, which had been granted on July 12, a day before former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled following months of protests over the country’s worst-ever economic crisis.
Rajapaksa resigned after fleeing to Singapore with his brother Mahinda, who was president from 2005 to 2015. Tens of thousands of protesters stormed his Colombo palace and home, accusing him of mismanagement in an economic crisis that has resulted in severe food, fuel, and medicine shortages. The Chinese ship was about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) south-east of Sri Lanka on Friday night, according to port officials, and was slowly approaching the Hambantota deep sea port.
Sri Lanka leased the port to China for 99 years for $1.12 billion, less than the $1.4 billion paid to a Chinese company to build it. According to Indian reports, the Yuan Wang 5 could be used for space and satellite tracking, as well as for intercontinental ballistic missile launches. The Indian government is concerned that the ship could spy on its activities and has filed a complaint with Colombo. The foreign ministry in New Delhi has stated that it will closely monitor ‘anything bearing on India’s security and economic interests and take all necessary measures to safeguard them’.