Sri Lanka asks China to postpone ship visit after India protests

New Delhi fears that its larger and more powerful rival China will use the Hambantota port as a military base in India’s backyard.

Sri Lanka says it has asked China to postpone a planned visit by a Chinese ship to the island after it approved its arrival earlier this week, bowing to diplomatic pressure from neighboring India to keep the military vessel out.

The Yuan Wang 5 was scheduled to arrive at the Chinese-built and leased port of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka for five days to replenish on Thursday. It is currently sailing in the eastern Indian Ocean, according to Refinitiv Econ.

Foreign security analyst Yuan Wang 5 describes it as one of China’s latest generation of space-tracking vessels, used to monitor satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile launches.

The Pentagon has said the Yuan Wang ships are operated by the People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force.

New Delhi fears that its larger and more powerful rival China will use Hambantota as a military base in India’s backyard. The $1.5bn port is close to the main shipping route from Asia to Europe.

Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said on July 12 that it had approved the ship’s arrival for this month.

“In light of the need for further consultation thereafter, the Ministry has informed the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Colombo to postpone the visit of the vessel to the Hambantota port,” the ministry said in a statement on Monday.

India said late last month that it was monitoring the ship’s planned visit and that New Delhi would protect its security and economic interests. India also lodged a verbal protest with the Sri Lankan government.

Asked about the dispute over the ship, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular news briefing that China’s relations with Sri Lanka “are not aimed at third parties”.

Wenbin told reporters that “some countries citing so-called ‘security concerns’ to put pressure on Sri Lanka is completely unfair”.

“At a time when Sri Lanka is facing economic and political difficulties, to grossly interfere in Sri Lanka’s normal exchanges and cooperation with other countries is to exploit its vulnerability, which is morally irresponsible and against the basic rules governing international relations,” he said.

“We urge the relevant parties to look at China’s marine scientific research activities in a rational light and stop disrupting the normal exchanges and cooperation between China and Sri Lanka,” he added.

Relations between India and China have been strained since at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers were killed in an armed encounter along the Himalayan border two years ago.

Both China and India have sought to increase their influence in Sri Lanka, which is facing the worst economic crisis in its independent history, although India has provided more aid than any other nation this year.

At the same time, the agreement to restructure China’s infrastructure debt to Sri Lanka is key to being able to reach a bailout program with the International Monetary Fund.

China supported Sri Lanka during its civil war with ethnic Tamil rebels and defended it against accusations of gross human rights abuses. Since the end of the war in 2009, China has loaned Sri Lanka billions of dollars for development projects.

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