Indian and US officials have raised concerns about the political optics of a Chinese naval vessel docked at Ambantota International Port, which the Sri Lankan government leased to state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings in 2017 after the Sri Lankan government defaulted on a loan it owed to China. The port’s transfer has been denounced by the United States as a prime example of China’s harmful lending practices and its growing influence over the island nation — allegations China vehemently denies.
The port is also considered a potential strategic base for the Chinese Navy to project power in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. The space surveillance ship Yuan Wang 5 will be unarmed but reportedly equipped with advanced sensors, which India has warned in recent weeks could spy on Indian defense installations. India has said it will take necessary countermeasures to protect national security.
Indian officials have argued that New Delhi has extended substantial financial aid to Sri Lanka this year – about $4 billion – as the Sri Lankan economy has entered an unhinged recession. They said Sri Lanka should deny the Chinese ship entry into the politically important port closest to India. The bankrupt island nation, which is trying to restructure its debts, counts China and India among its creditors.
“When a small, bankrupt country like Sri Lanka gives diplomatic room to New Delhi by hosting a Chinese surveillance ship in its commercial port of Ambandottai, it is a shocking reminder of India’s poor foreign policy and declining influence in its strategic backyard.” Brahma Chellane, former member of India’s National Security Advisory Council, said Tuesday on Twitter.
On Monday, a day before the arrival of the Chinese ship at Ambandottai, the Indian Army handed over two surveillance aircraft to Sri Lanka as a sign of friendship.
Under pressure from India, Sri Lanka asked China last week to postpone the ship’s arrival. Beijing has reacted angrily and accused other countries of interfering in its dealings with Sri Lanka.
Senior Sri Lankan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks between the governments, said on Tuesday that the Chinese were “unrelenting in their insistence”. Yuan Wang 5 was originally scheduled to arrive on August 11, but was delayed as Sri Lankan officials negotiated with various governments.
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Sri Lanka “engaged in extensive consultations at the highest level through diplomatic channels with all relevant parties” before granting final approval.
Sri Lanka can expect an angry reaction from the Indian government, which has long been suspicious that China could use the Ambantotai port for civilian and military purposes, said former Sri Lankan ambassador to Russia Dayan Jayatilaka.
He said the arrival of a Chinese warship “will not escape the response of other powers in the region”. “There will be a response from India, which could be a withdrawal of the economic aid given to Sri Lanka or something more concrete.”
Shih said from New Delhi.