The Chinese embassy here has sought an immediate meeting with Sri Lankan officials after Sri Lanka asked to postpone the scheduled visit of a high-tech Chinese research vessel to the strategic Hambantota port.
The Chinese research vessel ‘Yuan Wang 5’ was to stop at Hambantota port from August 11 to 17. Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry told the Chinese embassy in Colombo on August 5, “The ministry would like to request that the arrival of the vessel ‘Yuan Wang 5’ at Hambantota port be postponed until further consultations on the matter.”
Sources said here that the Chinese embassy in Colombo after receiving such a message from the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry demanded an immediate meeting with the higher officials of Sri Lanka to discuss the issue.
But the President’s Office denied the media reports about the meeting. On July 12, amidst the political turmoil in Sri Lanka, the then government had given permission to stop the Chinese vessel at the Hambantota port.
Hambantota port is considered strategically important. The port, located in the home area of the Rajapaksa family, has been largely developed with Chinese debt.
According to media reports here, New Delhi has informed Sri Lanka that India’s national security may be at risk due to the halt of a high-tech Chinese research vessel at the Hambantota port. Reports said that Sri Lanka has received a strong protest message from India and said that the Chinese ship has the capability to detect satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
When asked about the news of a proposed visit of a Chinese ship in New Delhi, Foreign Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said, “We are aware of the news of this ship’s proposed visit to Hambantota in August.”
“The government keeps a close watch on any developments affecting India’s security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to protect them,” he said last month.
New Delhi is concerned about fears that the ship’s surveillance system may attempt to spy on Indian installations en route to the Sri Lankan port.
India has traditionally taken a tough stance on Chinese military ships in the Indian Ocean in the past and has lodged a protest with Sri Lanka over such visits.
Relations between India and Sri Lanka became strained in 2014 after Colombo allowed a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to stay at one of its ports. China is a major lender to Sri Lanka with investments in infrastructure. India, on the other hand, has been Sri Lanka’s lifeline in the current economic crisis.
India has been at the forefront of providing nearly $4 billion in aid to Sri Lanka during the year as the island nation is facing its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
Sri Lanka’s new President Ranil Wickremesinghe is making efforts to lift his country out of the economic crisis and India has said it will continue to assist the island nation.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardene said last week that Sri Lanka was ready to resolve the issue of the ship’s visit with an “approach of friendship”.
India’s concern is particularly focused on the Hambantota port. In 2017, Colombo leased the southern port to China’s Merchant Port Holdings for 99 years after Sri Lanka was unable to meet its debt repayment commitments.
This raised the possibility of China using the port for military purposes.