China silent on talks with Sri Lanka as high-tech ship ‘Yuan Wang 5’ set to berth at Hambantota port

China has confirmed that Sri Lanka has permitted its satellite and missile tracking ship to dock at the Hambantota port on Tuesday, but it has chosen to withhold the specifics of the negotiations with Colombo that resulted in the bankrupt island nation’s government changing its position and allowing the high-tech vessel’s entry.

“As you said, Sri Lanka has given Yuan Wang-5 the permission to berth at its port,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a media briefing in Beijing, responding to a question about Colombo giving its nod for the ship to berth at Hambantota Port days after asking it to defer the visit following reported concerns expressed by India and the US. 

Also read: Sri Lanka grants permission to Chinese spy ship ‘Yuan Wang 5’ to dock: Reports

Wang, however, declined to go into details of Beijing’s talks with Colombo in relation to the berthing of the ship. “As for the specific questions that you raised, we have mentioned China’s position quite a few times,” Wang said when asked about what were the ‘consultations’ that were held and the ‘concerns’ addressed. 

After Sri Lanka asked it to defer the entry of the ship, China, on August 8, reacting angrily, said it was “completely unjustified” for certain countries to cite the so-called “security concerns” to pressure Colombo and “grossly interfere” in its internal affairs. 

Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry statement on August 13 said that Colombo held extensive consultations about “certain concerns”. 

According to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry’s statement, it had contacted the Chinese embassy on August 5 to request that the Chinese ship’s planned visit to the Hambantota port between August 11 and 17 be postponed “in light of certain concerns raised with the ministry” until further “consultations on the matter.”

“The government has since engaged in extensive consultations at a high level through diplomatic channels with all parties concerned, with a view to resolving the matter in a spirit of friendship, mutual trust, and constructive dialogue, taking into account the interests of all parties concerned, and in line with the principle of sovereign equality of states,” the statement said. 

The Chinese embassy on August 12 applied for clearance of the new dates — from August 16 to 22 — “for replenishment purposes of the vessel”. 

“Having considered all material in place”, the clearance to the Chinese embassy “was conveyed for the deferred arrival of the vessel between August 16 and 22”, the Sri Lankan statement said. 

The ship will dock at the Hambantota Port, which China has taken for a 99-year lease as a debt exchange and has the capacity to track satellites and intercontinental missiles on board.

Also read: No port call by high-tech Chinese ship ‘Yuan Wang 5’ at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota: Official

The approval from Colombo has also sparked rumours that Beijing may issue a favourable statement regarding Sri Lanka’s prior request to defer the loans it owed to China and request bridging finance to get through the crisis until it received assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

China, which has substantial assets in Sri Lanka, totalling billions of dollars, had shipped rice and donated USD 73 million but has been silent over Colombo’s request for a bailout package when it entered bankruptcy in April after exhausting its foreign exchange reserves.

India came in with funding totalling over USD 4 billion in the form of numerous lines of credit to purchase necessities like petrol, food, and medications. China has made the most infrastructure investments of any creditor to Sri Lanka.

Chinese loan debt restructuring would be essential to the island’s success in the ongoing bailout negotiations with the IMF. Because of its position, the southern deep-sea port of Hambantota—which was mostly created with Chinese loans—is seen as strategically significant. According to India, it closely watches any developments that could impact its security and economic interests.

The potential that the ship’s tracking equipment could try to snoop on Indian installations while it travels to the port in Sri Lanka worries New Delhi.

India has historically viewed Chinese military warships in the Indian Ocean with scepticism and has previously objected to such engagements with Sri Lanka.

In 2014, after Colombo allowed a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to dock in one of its ports, relations between India and Sri Lanka deteriorated. India is particularly worried about the port of Hambantota.

After Sri Lanka failed to meet its debt repayment obligations in 2017, Colombo leased the southern port to China Merchant Port Holdings for 99 years, raising concerns about the port’s potential use for military purposes.

Also read: Sri Lanka economic crisis: Story of the great Chinese betrayal

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday said it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called security concerns to pressure Sri Lanka. India on Friday rejected China’s “insinuations” that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the planned visit by the Chinese research vessel, but asserted that it will take decisions based on its security concerns. 

Arindam Bagchi, a spokesman for the external affairs ministry, stated in New Delhi that Sri Lanka, as a sovereign nation, makes its own independent decisions. He added that India would base its assessment of India’s security concerns on the conditions in the region, particularly in the border areas.

(With inputs from PTI)

Last Updated Aug 15, 2022, 7:49 PM IST

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