Vessel nears SL despite GoSL efforts to convince China

  • Prez, PM, Ali Sabry in diplomatic fire-fighting 
  • Yuan Wang 5 on course to reach H’tota tomorrow

Despite the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) requesting China to defer the visit of the Chinese space and satellite tracking research vessel Yuan Wang 5 at the Hambantota Port, multiple reports indicated that the vessel was still heading towards Hambantota to reach the port tomorrow, while Cabinet Spokesman Dr. Bandula Gunawardena said yesterday (9) that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, and Foreign Minister M.U.M. Ali Sabry PC are managing relations with regard to the vessel on a diplomatic level.

Indian media reported that as at 10 a.m. yesterday, the 23,000-tonne Yuan Wang 5 was sailing west off the coast of Indonesia at a speed of 14 knots, or 26 kilometres per hour, and was expected to reach Hambantota Port tomorrow (9) at 9:30 a.m. A Twitter-based open source intelligence account also reported yesterday that the Yuan Wang 5 was less than 700 nautical miles from the Hambantota Port, although these claims could not be independently verified by The Morning.

This is the first major foreign policy test for the Wickremesinghe Government, and Gunawardena, addressing the weekly Cabinet media briefing held to announce Cabinet decisions, said: “Sri Lanka acts according to international laws, and as a sovereign nation, has previously given permission on various occasions to different countries, even for their warships, to come to fulfill their purposes here. Ali Sabry explained the matter at the Cabinet of Ministers meeting. The President, the Premier, and the Foreign Minister are managing these affairs on a diplomatic level.”

In a statement on Monday (8), the Foreign Ministry said that although diplomatic clearance was given on 12 July to the Chinese vessel to call on the Hambantota Port for replenishment purposes from tomorrow (11) to 17 August, the Ministry had later requested the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Colombo to defer the said visit. 

Responding to media questions on the exact reason for this request to defer the visit and whether external pressure was imposed on the Government of Sri Lanka to do so, Gunawardena said he had no further knowledge on the matter. 

The Morning’s attempts to contact the Foreign Ministry regarding this matter yesterday proved futile.

India’s External Affairs Ministry raised concerns to the media about the arrival of the vessel in late July. Following this, China’s Foreign Ministry had responded to media questions about these concerns by stating that “China hopes that the relevant parties will view and report on China’s marine scientific research activities correctly and refrain from interfering with normal and legitimate maritime activities”.

This week, China termed India’s opposition to the visit as “morally irresponsible and unjustified”, adding that Sri Lanka is a sovereign country with the right to develop relations with other countries based on its development interests. 

India media reported that the ship, with a crew of 400, is equipped with several state-of-the art parabolic dishes and sensors, which the Indian Government feels has serious security ramifications, as by tracking Indian ballistic missile tests off the Odisha coast, China will be able to glean information on the performance of missiles and their exact range. Indian Government sources have told Indian media that they are monitoring the progress of the ship.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry had initially provided permission to the Yuan Wang 5 to dock at Hambantota Port. However, Sri Lanka’s Defense Ministry had denied reports of the vessel’s arrival to foreign media in July, even as India raised concerns about it. In the face of intense pressure from India, the GoSL had issued a “third-person note” from Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry to the Chinese embassy in Colombo dated 5 August, which requested that the arrival of the vessel be deferred until further consultations are made on the matter. Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong had met with President Ranil Wickremesinghe after the receipt of the note and expressed China’s surprise at the sudden change of heart by Sri Lanka.

The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has been engaged in “quiet diplomacy” to persuade China to agree to its request to defer the docking of the Chinese vessel Yuan Wang 5 at the Hambantota Port this week, diplomatic sources told The Morning on Sunday (7).

The GoSL’s efforts are aimed at ensuring that it antagonises neither China, which is crucial to its hopes of obtaining an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, nor India, which has virtually bankrolled Sri Lanka amidst an unprecedented economic crisis.

China plays an important role in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery as the Government seeks a financing loan from the IMF, as the US-based fund said last week that Sri Lanka should kick off debt restructuring talks with its bilateral lender China. On the other hand, India has provided Sri Lanka with almost $ 4 billion in aid this year, as Sri Lanka grapples with its worst economic crisis since Independence.