Sri Lanka Reverses Decision Permitting China's Naval Vessel to Visit

Chinese Navy vessel to visit Sri Lanka
Yuan Wang 5 (PLA)

Published Aug 14, 2022 1:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

The controversial Chinese vessel Yuan Wang 5, which Western analysts believe is a spy ship designed to track and listen in on satellites and support intercontinental ballistic missile tests, will be permitted to dock in Sri Lanka this week. The planned stop, which the Chinese are officially labeling a “replenishment visit,” is causing tensions between India and China with suggestions that China is taking advantage of Sri Lanka’s current financial and political crisis.

In a written statement issued on Saturday, August 13, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said, "Having considered all material in place, the clearance to the Embassy of the People's Republic of China was conveyed for the deferred arrival of the vessel from 16-22 August 2022." The Ministry reports that China had made the formal request in June for assistance while the vessel stopped at the Chinese run-Hambantota Port on the southern coast of the island nation followed up by a new request on August 12.

Last week, the same ministry announced that it was asking China to indefinitely defer the controversial visit of the vessel which China described as “a survey and observation ship” believe to have a crew of 400 aboard. Tracking services and international observers report the vessel has been lingering in the Indian Ocean about 700 miles southeast of Sri Lanka and India in recent weeks. It passed through Indonesia waters and has been believed to have been recently circling in the region between Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Reports indicated that China had notified the previous government of Sri Lanka of its intentions to dock the vessel for six days between August 11 and 16 at the port.

“The government has since engaged in extensive consultations at a high level through diplomatic channels with all parties concerned, with a view to resolving the matter in a spirit of friendship, mutual trust and constructive dialogue,” Sri Lanka said in announcing that it would permit the Chinese vessel to enter the country’s waters and port.

Reports indicate that Sri Lanka, however, placed stipulations on the visit. They are requiring the vessel to turn on its AIS signal before entering the Sri Lankan EEZ and continue to signal for the duration of the visit. They have also conditioned the port visit on the vessel not conducting any “research activities” within the country’s territorial seas.

The Yuan Wang 5 is one of two vessels that China acknowledges as part of its third-generation “survey” ships. It was designed by China Shipbuilding Corporation and built by the Jiangnan Shipyard. Measuring 728 feet in length the Yuan Wang 5 (11,000 dwt) entered service in 2007. Chinese state-controlled media reports the vessel began its operations in 2022 on March 22 after undergoing more than 50 days of maintenance to improve the power system and facilities, and the reliability and operability of its “special equipment.” Last year, they said the vessel spent 256 days at sea, and among the missions, they describe for the vessel include “tracking the Shenzhou spacecraft, the Chang'e lunar probes, BeiDou satellites and Mars probe Tianwen with a 100 percent success rate.”

The planned port call has sparked a war of words between India and China. Media reports said India, which has provided extensive food and economic support to Sri Lanka during its current crisis, was pressuring Sri Lanka to block the visit, reports the Indian government now denies. Speaking with the media on Sunday, India’s Cabinet Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways Sarbananda Sonowal said “India is well equipped to handle any kind of challenges that may arise in the wake of Sri Lanka allowing a high-tech Chinese 'research' ship to dock in its waters.”

China’s Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department of China, Wang Wenbin, addressing the issue said, “We urge the relevant parties to see China’s marine scientific research activities in a rational light and stop disrupting the normal exchange and cooperation between China and Sri Lanka." Yesterday, China’s Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, followed up on the earlier comments speaking to the media saying that India and China are seeing a "positive impetus" to the countries' relations while also mentioning India's recent pressure on Sri Lanka to defer the arrival of the Yuan Wang 5, as “the latest example of the complexity and delicacy of China-India relations.” 

Many fear that the vessel’s port call is the latest example of China exerting financial pressure on neighboring countries. China had lent the money to Sri Lanka to build the Hambantota Port and when the country was unable to repay the debt China took a 99-year lease on the port.