Indian and US officials had expressed concerns about the political outlook of a Chinese naval vessel docked at Hambantota International Port, which the Sri Lankan government leased to state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings in 2017 after Sri Lanka failed to repay its debts to China. The port transfer was condemned by the United States as a prime example of China’s harmful lending practices and its growing influence on the island — allegations China has vehemently denied.
The port is also seen as a potential strategic base for the Chinese navy to project power in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. India has warned in recent weeks that the Yuan Wang 5, a spacecraft reportedly unarmed but equipped with advanced sensors, could spy on Indian defense installations. India said it would take necessary countermeasures to ensure national security.
Indian officials have also argued that New Delhi provided significant financial aid 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 access to a politically sensitive port so close to India. The bankrupt island state, which wants to restructure its debts, counts China and India among its creditors.
“When a small, bankrupt nation like Sri Lanka deals a diplomatic blow to New Delhi by hosting a Chinese guard ship in the commercial port of Hambantota, it is a stunning reminder of both India’s unerring foreign policy and its dwindling influence in its strategic backyard.” Brahma Chellaney, a former member of the National Security Advisory Council of India, said Tuesday on Twitter.
On Monday, less than a day before the Chinese ship Hambantota entered, 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 postpone the arrival of the ship. Beijing reacted angrily, accusing other countries of meddling in Sri Lanka.
Senior Sri Lankan officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks between governments, said on Tuesday that the Chinese are “relentlessly persevering” for the ship to dock. The Yuan Wang 5 was originally scheduled to arrive on August 11, but was delayed as Sri Lankan officials negotiated with the various governments.
The Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Sri Lanka had “conducted extensive high-level consultations through diplomatic channels with all parties involved” before granting final approval.
Dayan Jayatilleka, 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 civilian and military purposes.
The arrival of a Chinese military ship “cannot escape a reaction from the other superpowers in the region,” he said. “There will be a response from India, which could go back to the economic aid given to Sri Lanka, or something more assertive.”
Shih reported from New Delhi.