Since July, the Yuan Wang 5 has been sailing from China to the port of Hambantota, at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, after Sri Lankan authorities approved a stopover there for “refilling”. But Indian and US officials have lobbied the Sri Lankan government heavily to revoke access to the port, infuriating their Chinese counterparts.
Caught in the middle, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday that it had formally requested China to postpone the visit while adding that it “wishes to reaffirm the enduring friendship and excellent relations between the Sri Lanka and China”. Sri Lankan media reported on Thursday that the vessel had reduced speed and turned around, only to make another U-turn at sea and continue towards the island.
On Thursday – when the Yuan Wang 5 was originally due to arrive – Sri Lankan officials were still locked in negotiations with the Chinese over whether and when to let the ship dock, a senior Sri Lankan business ministry official said. foreigners with direct knowledge of the discussions. Indian, Chinese and US officials have all been lobbying hard behind the scenes, said the Sri Lankan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private government-to-government discussions.
While a Chinese navy vessel arriving at Hambantota is not strategically important, Indian and US officials say it would be seen as Sri Lanka giving special treatment to China, a major creditor, at a time when the embattled Colombo government must renegotiate its debt. with a host of international lenders and getting a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. As Sri Lanka’s economy went into freefall this year, India, which sees South Asia as its traditional sphere of influence and is seeking to reverse China’s growing role there, has granted to the island $4 billion in loans to purchase emergency fuel.
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Then there is the history of the port itself. China, which financed and built it for Sri Lanka in 2012, took control of the facility on a 99-year lease in 2017 after Sri Lanka struggled to repay its debts, prompting accusations of the Trump administration that Beijing has engaged in predatory lending with its Globe – Belt and Road infrastructure program.
This week, China indirectly accused India of “blatant interference” in its affairs and dismissed its complaints that sensors aboard the Yuan Wang 5 could be used to peer into India’s interior.
“It is unreasonable for a third party to put pressure on Sri Lanka due to so-called security concerns,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing.
The dispute mirrors the shenanigans between the United States and its partners and China unfolding around the world. Since taking office, President Biden has stepped up previous US administrations’ efforts to curb Chinese expansion in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and rallied countries such as India and Australia to help in the effort. For its part, India has asked for help from the United States to counter China, a regional rival with which it has ongoing border disputes.
According to US analysts, if China were to base military ships in Hambantota – which it has not done so far – the People’s Liberation Army would gain a foothold in a highly strategic location near important shipping lanes and the Persian Gulf. But analysts also say it is embarrassing for the United States to openly call for denying China access to the port, given that Washington has historically embraced the principle of unrestricted shipping and often irritates China with his naval maneuvers.
The US Embassy in Colombo declined to comment.
“American ships make stops throughout Southeast Asia and East Asia that China finds uncomfortable, and vice versa,” said Joshua T. White, nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution and former adviser on South Asia to President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
In recent years, White said, Washington and New Delhi have increased military cooperation in the Indian Ocean to counter China. On Sunday, a US Navy freighter underwent repairs at a shipyard near Chennai, a southern Indian city near Sri Lanka. It was the first time India had allowed US Navy ships to dock for repairs, something the Pentagon had been seeking for years.
As the Yuan Wang 5 crossed the Indian Ocean this week and speculation surrounding the port visit skyrocketed, Indian and Chinese media were awash with hard-hitting commentary.
In India, newspapers have issued warnings about the ship’s surveillance capabilities after India’s foreign ministry issued a harsh statement on monitoring any activity that threatens Indian national security. Cable channels flashed the hashtag “#Chinesespyship” during news programs.
“Take Sri Lanka, for example: their debt trap has already pushed the country to the limit, but Beijing is not done yet. They intend to create more problems for the island,” said Palki Sharma, presenter of pro-government network WION, in a prime-time monologue. “…Whether it’s humanitarian aid or IMF bailout talks, only India has stepped up to help Sri Lanka. China has largely played the spoilsport.
The Chinese were equally garish, especially after Sri Lanka asked to postpone the port visit.
“India is bullying a bankrupt country,” the host of a popular channel told Tencent News. “It’s only because India gave 4 billion dollars that they think they’re now the buzzwords. How does that amount compare to what China gave Sri Lanka in the over the years?”
Retired Admiral Arun Prakash, a former head of the Indian Navy, said temperatures needed to be lowered. A dispute between India and China has not benefited any country – not Sri Lanka, he said.
“We must respect Sri Lanka’s autonomy, especially at this time when they are on their knees,” he said. “It’s a sovereign country that can allow any ship in. We don’t have a Monroe Doctrine in the area.”