The Strange Case of the ‘Yuan Wang 5’


Sri Lanka finds herself once again at the same quandary as we were in 2014 over the Chinese submarines docking at the Colombo Port. This time the controversy was over the Chinese research vessel, Yuan Wang 5, which was expected at the Hambantota Port on 11 August 2022. India was most unhappy and wanted Sri Lanka to rescind permission granted to the vessel to dock. 

Sri Lanka unable to decide between India and China

Sri Lanka was more than embarrassed by this demand. Like a rotten tooth Sri Lanka’s economy is wobbling painfully and needs all the help to keep it from falling off. In such a context, we are neither in a position to ignore or comply with India.

Thus far, Sri Lanka has been able to absorb the worst of the economic shocks because of India. For the past six months India has injected USD 3.8 billion as aid to the Sri Lankan economy. This has directly helped us obtain essentials as fuel, gas and medicine and stop our economy from collapsing completely. 

Conversely, China has been unusually silent. According to former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan economy began to tumble after China sat on Sri Lanka’s request for a USD 1.5 billion. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka cannot discount the steady friendship shared with China over the decades. 

Sri Lanka’s woes are not confined to the economy. We are under attack in global forums as the UNHRC, which is shamelessly hounding us over unsubstantiated allegations. Curiously, Sri Lanka has been reticent and have never used the powerful proof at hand to wholeheartedly challenge these accusations and establish Sri Lanka’s innocence. Sri Lanka’s baffling reluctance however has never stopped China from fiercely defending us. 

India, who has allowed bilateral relations with us to be largely dictated by Tamil Nadu politics, can never stand by us the way China has stood by us. The most India can thus do at these forums is abstain from voting. This does not have any effect for an abstained vote is not countered at all. Thus, such a vote supports neither side – for or against. 

Furthermore, Sri Lanka must somehow break our current vicious and addictive cycle of living off on loans. If our economy started to collapse for want of a USD 1.5 billion credit line to keep it rolling, then the extent of our vulnerability need no further explanations. 

We must bolster our present meagre incomes by introducing new paths to earn revenue. For this, we need fresh opportunities ideally in the form of Foreign Direct Investments. 

China with her deep pockets and policies to invest in strategic infrastructure to boost developing economies is our ideal partner. Even developed regions as Europe, including China’s main detractors as US and India are nurturing their economic partnerships with China. So must we. 

Entangled in the battle cries of two friends

this whole controversy, with China wishing to dock one of its research vessels for replenishment at the Hambantota Port and India’s fear that this is a ship on surveillance and not survey as stated, precipitates very important questions for Sri Lanka. This whole issue is not about this ship itself or its stated or possible purposes. The problem lies with the troubled relations between two of Sri Lanka’s closest friends and unwittingly or inevitably involving Sri Lanka in the fight. 

Repeatedly, Sri Lanka finds herself in this tangle. In 1971, India and Pakistan were at war. Both these nations are good friends of Sri Lanka. Thus, Pakistan aircraft en route to present Bangladesh (which was then East Pakistan) was unable to use Indian airspace. Hence they needed to stopover at the Katunayake International Airport for refuelling. The Sri Lankan Government allowed it. 

By doing so, Sri Lanka earned Pakistan’s loyalty but soured relations with India. We are yet to analyse if this episode was also a factor that influenced India to subsequently support separatism in Sri Lanka. 

Implications of China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean 

In 2014 India was furious with Sri Lanka for allowing Chinese submarines to dock at the Colombo Port. As far as India was concerned, a submarine is only used for military purposes. Therefore, Sri Lanka continuing to host these boats notwithstanding India’s concerns threaten India’s and even the region’s security was India’s take on the situation. 

Actually, a submarine has a number of other purposes than military. Nonetheless, it must be granted that these particular submarines did not have a non-military objective. At the same time it must be acknowledged that neither did it provoked or challenged Indian or regional’s interests or security in any manner. 

Military per se need not necessarily convey war or offense. It could also spell security. As reported by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, the Chinese Type 039 (Song)-class submarine, had docked at the Colombo International Container Terminal after escorting People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships, which were conducting anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast. 

The Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman too clarified during a press briefing that “on its way to and back from the mission area, the submarine made technical docking in Sri Lanka twice, and it is a quite common practice for submarines of world navies to dock at certain ports and conduct replenishment.”

China relies on friendly, foreign posts as she does not possess or maintain any overseas military bases.

As reported by The Hindu, in the Lok Sabha, the then External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj responding to a written question observed that, “a conventional Chinese submarine berthed at Colombo Port from 7-13 September and 31 October – 6 November 2014.” She added: “SLG has informed that the submarine visited Colombo for replenishment purposes and has reassured that the SLG will not do anything against the security interest of India.”

Who is playing with India’s fears? 

Yet, India remained aggrieved over the incident and wanted the offending Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration out. However, the regime change did not do any favours to India with the management of the strategic Hambantota Port coming into China’s hands. 

Curiously, India was unable to clearly establish exact reasons for their contention over this vessel. Apparently, it was the US who ‘tipped’ India of this vessel. However, India refused to take the matter with China, despite China’s attempts to address the issue with India. This ship has already berthed in countries as Japan, New Zealand, Fiji and Indonesia without incident.

There are signs that Sri Lanka tried to make a U-turn to appease India. On 11 August the day this was to arrive at Hambantota, Harbour Master Captain Nimal de Silva claimed that protocol has been breached by not obtaining his approval and permission has only been got through the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic channels. Therefore, this ship would be disallowed to dock. 

The very following day the Foreign Ministry issued a statement that this ship is allowed to stopover at the Hambantota Port. The detailed statement chronicled this whole episode from the point China sought permission from Sri Lanka to date, including the due process followed in processing the request and the resulting concerns. 

India accuses Sri Lanka of breaching the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) – a pact between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. This is to keep track of movements in the Indian Ocean to ensure regional security. Sri Lanka has defended herself by pointing out that this is not a military but a scientific vessel. Though India was a difficult customer, Sri Lanka was able to convince India eventually that this vessel is not a threat. 

Citing the MDA might actually be to save face for this agreement is hardly effective. Sri Lanka regularly suffers from illegal boats entering Sri Lankan waters from Tamil Nadu. These boats engaged mostly in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing costs Sri Lanka an estimated USD 32.3 to USD 115.4 million per year. These are also engaged in contraband and was a severe security threat during the terrorist era. This MDA has hardly been effective to counter this harm to Sri Lanka, perhaps primarily because its partners meet irregularly. 

The issue with Yuan Wang 5 has been resolved finally. Nevertheless this incident costed China a delay of one week and put Sri Lanka on the hot seat. Leaving personal disagreements aside, India, China and Sri Lanka must investigate if mischievous geopolitical forces played devil’s advocate with India’s natural suspicions to heighten regional tensions. 

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(The views and opinions expressed in this article are writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ceylon Today)

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe