Both Indian and US officials had raised concerns over the political optics of a Chinese naval vessel docked at Hambantota Port, which the Sri Lankan government leased to state-owned China Merchant Port Holdings Co. in 2017 after Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt to China had repaid . The transfer of the port has been condemned by the United States as a prime example of China’s harmful lending practices and growing influence on the island nation – allegations that China has vehemently denied.
The port is also seen as a potential strategic base for the Chinese Navy to project power into the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. India has warned in recent weeks that the Yuan Wang 5, a space-tracking ship reportedly unarmed but equipped with advanced sensors, could spy on Indian defenses. India said it would take necessary countermeasures to ensure national security.
Indian officials have also argued that New Delhi provided substantial financial assistance to Sri Lanka — about $4 billion — this year as Sri Lanka’s economy went into free fall. They said Sri Lanka should deny the Chinese ship entry into a politically sensitive port so close to India. The bankrupt island nation, which wants to restructure its debt, counts China and India among its creditors.
“When a small, bankrupt nation like Sri Lanka gives New Delhi a diplomatic slap in the face by stationing a Chinese surveillance ship at its commercial port of Hambantota, it’s a powerful reminder of both India’s unsteady foreign policy and the waning influence in its strategic backyard. Brahma Chellaney, a former member of the National Security Advisory Board of India, said Tuesday on Twitter.
On Monday, less than a day before the Chinese ship docked in Hambantota, the Indian military handed over two surveillance planes to Sri Lanka as a gesture of friendship.
Under pressure from India, Sri Lanka last week asked China to delay the ship’s arrival. Beijing reacted angrily, accusing other countries of interfering in its dealings with Sri Lanka.
Senior Sri Lankan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private government-to-government talks, said Tuesday that the Chinese “adamantly insist” that the ship dock. The Yuan Wang 5 was originally scheduled to arrive on August 11 but was delayed while Sri Lankan officials negotiated with the various governments.
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Sri Lanka had “extensive high-level consultations through diplomatic channels with all parties concerned” before granting the final approval.
Dayan Jayatilleke, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to Russia, said Sri Lanka could expect an angry response from the Indian government, which has long suspected that the port of Hambantota could eventually be used by China for both civilian and military purposes.
The arrival of a Chinese military ship “cannot escape a reaction from the other superpower in the region,” he said. “There will be a response from India that may be due to economic aid to Sri Lanka, or something more specific.”
Shih reported from New Delhi.