Lanka defers arrival of China ship, go-ahead given hours before Gota fled

Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked China to “postpone” the arrival of the Yuan Wang 5 military ship at its southern port of Hambantota.

On July 12, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave clearance for the Yuan Wang-class ship to dock at Hambantota Port, a day before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was ousted from office by a popular movement, resigned as he had announced.

On Friday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a communication to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, requesting that the arrival date of Yuan Wang 5 “be postponed pending further inquiries on this matter.”

With that, a matter that raised questions in Delhi about the Sri Lankan government’s motives for hosting the ship, has been blown away, at least for now.

But concerns remain in Delhi over the language of the note verbale, or “third-party note” as it is called in Sri Lanka, suggesting the issue is still open for discussion.

India has poured $4 billion worth of financial and material assistance into Sri Lanka since January, and has also kept it in talks with the IMF for a package to help it recover from the col· lapse of its economy. Delhi was surprised to learn that the Colombo government had given clearances for the Chinese military ship to dock at Hambantota.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa

The matter first came to light through a seemingly innocuous mention on the BRISL (Belt and Road Initiative Sri Lanka) website that the ship was calling at the southern port.

Hambantota port was developed with loans from Beijing. In 2017, the Sri Lankan government leased the port to China Merchants Port Holdings Company, a Hong Kong-based shipping company, for a period of 99 years.

Over the past week, Delhi has conveyed more than once that it has serious concerns about the ship’s planned arrival and is in constant discussions with the Sri Lankan government on the issue.

At first, Colombo tried to ensure that it was a “research” vessel for development activities, and only called for bunkering, for one week, from 11 to 17 August.

But India said that did nothing to ease its concerns about the vessel, one of six Yuan Wang-class tracking vessels used by the People’s Liberation Army to monitor satellites and ballistic missiles. intercontinental

With satellite dishes and other equipment, these large ships are part of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force. A foothold in Hambantota would make several ports and other sensitive facilities in southern India vulnerable, as would any movement of Indian Navy ships, officials said.


Why is Delhi worried

With its monitoring equipment, the Yuan Wang 5 vessel could bypass many of South India’s ports and sensitive facilities from Sri Lankan waters.

The “spy” ship, officials said, was an inappropriate name for the ship and that it was in fact a dual-purpose strategic platform, the likes of which had not been sent by any country to these waters before.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government had told Delhi that the permission was given by the previous government. The communication from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Chinese Embassy mentions that authorizations for the ship to reach Hambantota were given on 12 July. The Sri Lankan government was in total disarray at the time. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was then in hiding, planning his escape from the country. He was said to have arrived at a military base near Katunayake International Airport, Sri Lanka’s main airport, in preparation for departure.

Apart from the Presidency, Rajapaksa also held the position of Ministry of Defence, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was then under GL Peiris. Wickremesinghe was the prime minister at the time (Gotabaya would make him acting president the next day), but he need not have been in the decision-making on the Chinese ship. The then Minister of Ports and Navigation had been suspended following a corruption investigation.

Official sources in Colombo said the Chinese side’s request for clearances came in June. Sources maintained that while input was taken from the Ministry of Defence, the final decision to give the clearance was taken by the East Asia Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, without escalating the matter to the levels appropriate to the Ministry for further consultation.

No discussion was held with the Ministry’s South Asia division either, the sources said.

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