Since Hambantota Port was given to China among many other development project contracts, the world’s superpowers have been focusing on the activities Sri Lanka is meddling with. Again a warship, with a full strategic military application platform, is in the Sri Lanka’s geopolitical discourse. After the submarine Changzheng-2 and cruiser Chang Xing Dao arrived in Colombo in 2014 causing a major ruckus between India and Sri Lanka, the Yuan Wang 5 fleet of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF) is coming towards Sri Lanka, and it’s not for a picnic.

China on both occasions said that its vessels and submarines were here for replenishments but the Yuan Wang 5 has sufficient fuel for around six months and would take only 20 days to sail to Hambantota Port directly from China reaching its destination on 11 August. So the vessel needing to resupply is not a story fully bought by India.

This has made Delhi to openly, directly confront Sri Lanka these days.

While being the Foreign Ministry Secretary, Admiral J. Colambage disclosed that already there is fresh militarisation in Sri Lanka, with all sides stepping up their military links with the island and said he hoped “relevant parties” would refrain from interfering with its legitimate maritime activities. He also pointed out that the number of warships that belong to different countries visiting Sri Lankan ports is evidence of such militarisation. From 2009 to 2017, a total of 398 warships had visited Sri Lankan ports. A breakdown of this is as follows: India- 82; Pakistan- 24; Japan- 67; Bangladesh- 23; China -31; USA- 18; and Russia- 26.

Yuan Wang 5

Once again, a strong diplomatic controversy is already brewing between Sri Lanka and India as the Yuan Wang 5, operated by the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, approaches Sri Lanka and prepares to dock at Hambatota Port which is manned by none other than the Chinese after signing a 99-year lease agreement.

This vessel can track and support satellite and intercontinental ballistic missiles by the PLASSF.

The research/survey vessel is sailing from Jiangyin, China and it is currently nearing Indonesia and is scheduled to arrive at the Sri Lankan port and will stay there until 17 August.

According to Wikipedia, PLASSF is the space, cyber, and electronic warfare force and the fifth branch of China’s Armed Forces. The PLASSF was established in December 2015 as part of the first wave of the Chinese military reforms. Yuan Wang 5 is a third-generation tracking ship of the Yuan Wang Series, which came into service on 29 September 2007, and was designed by China’s 708 Research Institute.

It further says that with an aim to improve the Army’s ability to fight what China terms “informationised conflicts”   and enhance the PLA’s power projection capabilities in space and cyberspace, the SSF is a new force designed to allegedly break stovepipes in the intelligence sharing and coordination departments of the different branches. Specifically, the objectives of the strategic support force were to include: target acquisition, reconnaissance, undertaking daily navigation operations, space reconnaissance, and management of Beidou satellites undertaking electronic and cyber warfare and countermeasures.

Delhi’s concerns

This fresh turn of events comes after India sent more aid to Sri Lanka than any other country since the beginning of fertiliser, financial and petroleum crisis  last year.

India has long been dubious of Sri Lanka’s pendulum-like foreign policy, and no matter what is done to save Sri Lanka, it will turn its back on India. The reasons as many know is the Tamil ethnic issue which has been a plus point for China to keep engaging with Sri Lanka at the global stage like the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Rightfully, inviting the vessel from China had occurred in a short period of time after giving India hope that it will be the principal rescuer of Sri Lanka from the crisis and supporter in getting the IMF to bail out from the debt crisis.

Whether or not India’s move closer to Sri Lanka has annoyed China, China is gaining what it wants, this time to dock its surveillance ship, giving a warning to India that it can’t flex its might by having Sri Lanka by its side.

It is evident that the permission was granted after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was overthrown.

Sri Lanka has been sandwiched in this entire geopolitical war between the United States, India, China, and Japan, and it has still not released itself to be free and non-aligned but having tilted towards China and protecting Chinese interests more than other stakeholders who have also uplifted Sri Lanka’s troubling financial and trade affairs.

Japan, especially, has also been firm of the view that China will impose its hegemony in the Indian Ocean in the same way as it is allegedly doing in South China Sea.

Such actions are never without a purpose and India must pay close attention, Indian geopolitical experts warn over the research vessel that is heading to Sri Lanka.

Although the implications of this new type of unexpected visit by a Chinese surveillance or “spy ship” have yet to be assessed, the brewing problem could be that the diplomatic ties Sri Lanka has with both China and India will suffer at some point, and the consequences will be borne by Sri Lanka at a time when it already has its own additional problems piling up unable to feed its people, chaos on the streets and domestic affairs is on a tight rope.

Why a ship of that nature?

The Yuan Wang 5 needs upgrading on its operation and installations.  It has sailed around deep oceans and was last spotted six years ago in the vicinity but Yuan Wang 5 has not docked anywhere during its previous visits and this visit to Sri Lanka is first of its kind.

The powerful tracking vessel whose significant aerial reach is around 750 km which means South India will be on China’s radar to monitor vital installations. The tracking vessel has the capacity to spy on atomic sites and ports in southern India among other areas as well.

China for the first time has approached Sri Lanka to anchor this vessel at Hambantota and that was easily approved by the Government of Sri Lanka due to lessee rights China has.

The vessel, a strategic platform under the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, is unlike a typical vessel because it is involved in military operations to safeguard China. The strategic platform will arrive in Sri Lanka after a 20-day journey, with enough fuel for six months and no need for recharging, and the Indians have already discovered Sri Lanka to be tricked or kept the matter as secret.

Some of the concerns are that once approval is granted, the ship can arrive at any moment and build a port for their military research. It is a direct threat to India in this situation, and India may be forced to make an ‘independent’ decision, mentioned Rtd Commodore R.S. Vasan of the Indian Military who spoke to a local interviewer. He said if China uses the Hambantota as a military port then India has every right to take on any threat emerging from Hambantota and not that it does not imply Sri Lanka. He said China is vulnerable when it comes to the Indian Ocean region.

Yet, Sri Lanka’s action granting permission cannot be taken for granted that a leased port can be used by the lessee as it wants.

But the pressure Sri Lanka has to embrace all actors on the common platform has become an increasingly a threat to Sri Lanka when it cannot balance its act.

While China defends every operation it undertakes in Sri Lanka, precisely development projects, it claims no fraud committed towards Sri Lanka. But the fact remains that its forceful activities going inroads into Sri Lanka beyond its commercial and economic approach has been proved beyond all doubts.

Already the Consul General of India in Hambantota  P. R. Dipin along with Lt. Col. Puneet Sushil, Asst. Defence Adviser had a cordial meeting with Major General Lanka Amarapala, Commanding Officer of 12th Division at Hambantota Army camp premises on Thursday (4) highlighting their concerns.

India has openly said that the vessel should not at all be allowed in Sri Lankan waters and asked to what purpose should a 20-year old ship that has been sailing around has to come now other than for spying and block India’s defence operations.

Primarily it is to upset the good relationship between India and Sri Lanka. There is zero benefit for Sri Lanka from this vessel, India noted and the ship is aiming at the North West to sail around the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Eden. However it has nothing to do with Indo-Pacific region. The repercussion is only the security concerns for India.

Another Indian Military expert Col. R. Hariharan told foreign media that Yuan Wang 5 is scheduled to berth in Hambantota for a week ostensibly to replenish and plausibly survey the sea around it. Later it is to proceed on survey duties in the Arabian Sea, presumably India’s western coasts and seas around Maldives and Laccadive islands of India. “So naturally India is concerned. Thanks to its state-of-the-art aerial surveillance capability acquired from the US sometime back, the Indian Navy is keeping the seas of the Indian Ocean, particularly the Malacca and Sunda chokepoints under surveillance throughout. So there is no way PLAN-N ships or for that matter any warships can enter the Indian Ocean Region without India keeping it under surveillance. 

He further underlines that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) there is no bar on warships moving in the high seas. However, they need to inform in advance when they enter the EEZ of any country. For replenishment and repair, war ships take the permission of the host country in advance to avoid any apprehension.  Given the state of uneasy security relations between India and China, it will be prudent for Sri Lanka to keep India in the information loop for any potential security issue. Moreover, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have a triangular security arrangement so that IN warships jointly patrol the EEZ of the other two smaller countries, he added.

“China operates the largest number of survey ships. China had deployed at least 12 Sea Wing underwater drones in the Indian Ocean in 2019 using its survey ship Xiang Yang Hong 6. According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences article in March 2020 the 12 underwater gliders travelled more than 12,000 km and conducted more than 3,400 profiling observations and obtained a large amount of hydrological data. These drones map the contours of the seabed, and collect data such as salinity, turbidity, chlorophyll and oxygen levels. Such data can help China to detect and track foreign submarine movements but also for planning routes for its own submarines to use for submerged transit. So what is Yuan Wang up to? Definitely, not on a picnic. India and other navies using IOR may not be nervous but they will be concerned at Yuan Wang exercising its ‘legitimate right’.”

Is Sri Lanka’s arm being bent and carrots provided to ensure that Chinese money keeps coming? Sri Lanka is at a crossroad looking for ways and means to bail itself out from debts and cashless situation and if the IMF talks with US, Japan and India fails then the hope are pinned on China and the recent meeting between President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenghong sums it all.

President Wickremesinghe in his recent tweets hinted that he had recapped Sri Lanka’s steadfast support to the one-China Policy as well as the UN Charter values of sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations. He made the remarks in the context of US top official, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s, 25th visit to Taiwan in support of Taiwan’s democracy, especially on issues of security and stability, economic growth, and governance. President Wickremesinghe in his tweet warned that countries should avoid provocations that exacerbate the current global tensions. “Mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries are key foundations for peaceful cooperation and non-confrontation.”

His tweets were unjustified because
Sri Lanka has no bearing on the conflict between the three major powers, but
Sri Lanka periodically checkmates these powers and antagonises them while failing to take advantage of sitting on the strategic East-West maritime corridor.

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan