Indian and US officials have raised concerns about the political optics of a Chinese naval vessel docked at the Hambantota international port, which the Sri Lankan government leased to state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings in 2017 after Sri Lanka failed to pay its debts to China. The port relocation has been condemned by the United States as a prime example of China’s harmful lending practices and their growing impact on the island nation – allegations that China has vehemently denied.
The port is also seen as a potential strategic foothold 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 space tracking ship said to be unarmed but equipped with sophisticated sensors, could spy on Indian defense facilities. India said it would take necessary countermeasures to protect national security.
Indian officials have also argued that New Delhi has provided significant financial assistance this year to Sri Lanka – about $4 billion – as the Sri Lankan economy is entering a meltdown. They said Sri Lanka should refuse the Chinese ship’s entry to a politically sensitive port very close to India. The bankrupt island nation, which is seeking to restructure its debt, counts China and India among its creditors.
“When a small, bankrupt country like Sri Lanka delivers a diplomatic slap to New Delhi by hosting a Chinese surveillance ship in the commercial port of Hambantota, it is a startling reminder of India’s weak foreign policy and waning influence in its strategic backyard,” Brahma Chellani, a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Council, said, He said Tuesday on Twitter.
On Monday, less than a day before the Chinese ship withdrew to Hambantota, the Indian Army presented 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 responded angrily, accusing other countries of meddling in its dealings with Sri Lanka.
Senior Sri Lankan officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks between governments, said on Tuesday that the Chinese had been “relentless in their insistence” that the ship dock. Yuan Wang 5 was originally scheduled to arrive on August 11, but was delayed while Sri Lankan officials were negotiating with various governments.
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Sri Lanka “engaged in extensive consultations at a high level through diplomatic channels with all concerned parties” before granting final approval.
Dayan Jayatilika, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to Russia, said Sri Lanka can expect an angry reaction from the Indian government, which has long suspected that the Hambantota port could eventually be used by China for both civilian and military purposes.
He said the arrival of a Chinese military ship “could not escape a response from the other superpower in the region.” “There will be a response from India, which could roll back the economic assistance to Sri Lanka, or something more assertive.”
Sheh reported from New Delhi.
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