Explained: Why is a Chinese ‘spy ship’ heading for a Sri Lankan port, what does it mean for India?

India is follow closely the relocation of a Chinese “espionage ship” bound for Sri Lanka and scheduled to dock in the port of Hambantota around 11 August. India has already filed a verbal protest against the ship’s visit.

What is this Chinese ship bound for Sri Lanka?

The ‘Yuan Wang 5’, a Chinese research and research vessel, is en route to Hambantota, a strategically important deep-sea port developed largely with loans from Beijing.

‘Yuan Wang’-class ships are used to track satellite, missile and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches. China has about seven of these tracking vessels that can operate in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The ships will complement Beijing’s land-based tracking stations.

According to a report by the US Department of Defense, these space support ships are operated by the Strategic Support Force (SSF) of the PLA. and psychological warfare missions and capabilities”.

The ‘Yuan Wang 5’ was built at the Chinese shipyard Jiangnan and entered service in September 2007. This 222 meter long and 25.2 meter wide vessel has state-of-the-art tracking technology on board for transoceanic space observation.

The last observation mission was the launch of China’s ‘Long March 5B’ rocket. It was also recently involved in maritime monitoring of the launch of the first laboratory module of the Chinese space station Tiangong.

Why is this ship going to Sri Lanka?

According to the Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka (BRISL), ‘Yuan Wang 5’ will enter the port of Hambantota on August 11 for a week and probably leave on August 17 after replenishment.

“The Yuan Wang 5 will perform satellite monitoring and research tracking of Chinese satellites in the northwestern Indian Ocean until August and September,” BRISL said on its website.

It added: “Yuan Wang 5’s visit to the port of Hambantota will be an excellent opportunity for Sri Lanka and the regional developing countries to learn and develop their own space programs.”

Hambantota is on the route connecting Southeast Asia to Africa and Western Asia. (Source: brisl.org)

Why is India concerned about this development?

The ‘Yuan Wang 5’ is a powerful tracking vessel with significant air range – reportedly around 750 km – which could put several ports in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh on the Chinese radar. Reports have claimed that several vital installations in South India are at risk of being spied on.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi had spoken of the development last week: “We are aware of reports of a planned visit by this ship to Hambantota in August… The government is closely following any development affects the security and economic interests of India and takes all necessary measures to protect them.”

In response, China’s foreign ministry said in a statement reported by Reuters, “China hopes the relevant parties will properly review and report on Chinese marine scientific research activities and not interfere with normal and legitimate maritime activities.”

Hambantota is the second largest port in Lanka. (Source: Google Maps)

Why is the port of Hambantota strategically crucial?

The second largest port in Lanka, Hambantota is on the route connecting Southeast Asia to Africa and Western Asia. For China, it is an important stop in its Belt and Road Initiative. Its development has been largely financed by China, and in 2017 Colombo transferred its majority stake to a Chinese company after failing to repay its burgeoning debt.

India and the US have repeatedly expressed concern that Chinese control of this port could harm their interests in the Indian Ocean by becoming a hub for the PLA navy. Security experts in India have often questioned its economic viability, pointing out that it fits right in with China’s “string of pearls” strategy to surround India in the Indian Ocean by increasing its land and maritime footprint.

Hambantota’s proximity to India has the potential to give the Chinese Navy exactly the naval flex aimed at India that it has long sought.

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