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Explained: The Chinese Ship 'Yuan Wang 5' Docked In Sri Lanka, Indian Concerns And China's Security Challenges

Sri Lanka has allowed a Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship to dock in one of its port despite Indian security and spying concerns.

The Chinese ship Yuan Wang 5 which is docking in Sri Lanka
The Chinese ship Yuan Wang 5 which is docking in Sri Lanka AP/Eranga Jayawardena

The Chinese ship 'Yuan Wang 5' docked in a Sri Lankan port on Tuesday despite Indian and American concerns. 

Earlier, Sri Lankan government had deferred the visit of the ship but it gave the green light on Saturday, following which the ship reached the port of Hambantota on Tuesday morning. 

While China maintains it's a research vessel meant for scientific purposes, reports have highlighted its dual-use nature. It has been described as a ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship. 

The docking of the ship is being seen in the context of China's security challenges to India and its neighbourhood and the competition and challenges it brings to the broader Indo-Pacific region.

Here we explain what's Yuang Wang 5 ship, what are the Indian concerns regarding it, and what the approval by Sri Lanka in defiance of Indian concerns means. 

What's Chinese ship 'Yuang Wang 5'?

The Chinese maintain that it's a research vessel meant for scientific purposes. However, it has been reported that it's actually a dual-use ship with military applications. 

It has been described as a ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship. The US Department of Defence has said that the ship is actually under the command of China's military, formally called the People's Liberation Army (PLA). 

Yuan Wang 5 is a third-generation vessel of Yuan Wang series that entered service in 2007, according to India Today, which adds that this series of ships include "space tracking ships involved in supporting the manned space programme". 

What are India's concerns over 'Yuang Wang 5'?

India considers South Asia its strategic backyard where China has made considerable inroads. Therefore, its continued and increasing presence in the region challenges India's clout in the region. This is why the presence of a potentially espionage vessel in the immediate neighbourhood is a concern to India.

Moreover, there is also fear of the ship spying on Indian coasts. The Indian government is apprehensive about the possibility of the ship's tracking systems attempting to spy on Indian defence installations. It has also been noted that the ship could also be used to survey the ocean which would help the Chinese in planning submarine operations in the region. 

The Hindustan Times noted, "While the so-called research vessels are said to be carrying out hydrological surveys and metal prospecting, fact is that vessels like Yuan Wang 5 are monitoring satellite activity and missile test firing in the region with focus on India, US and Australia."

Chinese pressure outdid Indian concerns

The most perplexing aspect of the entire episode is the Sri Lankan approval for the ship to dock in its port in defiance of Indian concerns. 

This is even more perplexing at the time when Sri Lanka is going through its worst economic crisis and India has emerged as its biggest support. So far, India has provided nearly $4 billion in aid to Sri Lanka, which includes fuel shipments, medicines, foodstuff, and credit. 

Despite such a situation when Sri Lanka is bankrupt and India has kept it afloat, the Sri Lankan defiance of Indian concerns of Indian concerns insensitivity to Indian security intersts is all the more interesting. Such Sri Lankan behaviour is expected by the fact that while India has indeed has emerged as its biggest supporter, its clout in the country is still not as much as that of China. This is why Chinese pressure to allow the ship's visit prevailed over the Indian prodding to not allow it. 

Moreover, it has also been reported that China's international clout also outdid India. Sri Lanka is looking for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and China reportedly threatened it if ship was not allowed.

"The Ranil Wickremesinghe government could not stand up to the pressure of the Xi Jinping regime amidst threats of Beijing possibly trying to block much needed IMF loan to officially bankrupt Colombo," reported The Hindustan Times.

There is also the possibility of Sri Lanka playing the "China Card" and balancing the two regional powers — India and China. Countries such as Sri Lanka and Nepal have often used the prospect of getting closer with China —India's principal rival— to level up their place in their dealings with India. 

"Delhi has been at the forefront of sending aid to Sri Lanka in recent months to help it overcome its economic crisis, but this latest controversy could cast a shadow over this. Many in Delhi's diplomatic circles are wondering if the new administration in Colombo is again trying to find that elusive balance between India and China," noted Vikas Pandey of BBC News.

Embarrassment for India, possible consequences for Sri Lanka

The episode is being seen as an embarrassment of India as Sri Lanka violated Indian concerns and sensitivities despite India being its biggest backer in its worst economic crisis. 

Sri Lanka is facing an acute shortage of foreign exchange and has been short of several essentials in recent months, including vehicular fuel, cooking gas, medicines, and even food stuff, and therman fuel for electricity. India aid has been critical to the country being afloat. 

The Sri Lankan action to allow the Chinese ship to dock in its port is seen as a "slap" on the face of India.

"When a small, bankrupt nation like Sri Lanka delivers a diplomatic slap to New Delhi by hosting a Chinese surveillance ship at its commercial port of Hambantota, it is a stunning reminder of both India's feckless foreign policy and receding influence in its strategic backyard," said strategic affairs commentator Brahma Chellaney on Twitter.

In an earlier tweet at the time when Sri Lanka had deferred the visit, he said that the very fact that Sri Lanka agreed for the visit —before deferring it— shows its insensitivity to Indian concerns. 

"Following India's protest, Sri Lanka may have urged China to defer the arrival of a Chinese surveillance ship, but what stands out that [is that] it agreed to host at its commercial port a military ship whose mission includes mapping ocean floor for anti-submarine operations against India," said Chellaney in a tweet on August 7.

Experts have also noted that India might retaliate by pulling the plug on its support to Sri Lanka.

The Washington Post quoted former Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka as saying that "Sri Lanka could expect an angry reaction from the Indian government, which has long suspected that the Hambantota port could eventually be used by China for civilian and military purposes".

The Hambantota port, where the Chinese ship is docking, was given to China by Sri Lanka on a 99-year lease after Sri Lanka failed to repay Chinese loans. It is seen as a case of Chinese "debt trap" diplomacy. 

The Post quoted Jayatilleka as saying that the ship's docking "cannot escape a response from the other superpower [India] in the region" and there will be a response from India, which can be going back on the economic assistance given to Sri Lanka, or something more assertive". 

(With PTI inputs)

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