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The Chinese ‘spy’ ship that raised Indian eyebrows; and this may not be the last

Ever since Sri Lanka leased Hambantota port to China, both India and the US have flagged their concerns that this may eventually lead to it becoming a hub for the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean

Sagnik Sarkar Aug 18, 2022
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The Chinese ‘spy’ ship that raised Indian eyebrows (Photo: Twitter)

Sri Lanka’s decision to defer the Chinese survey and tracking vessel ‘Yuan Wang 5’ from docking at the Hambantota port -- then making a U-turn -- for refueling comes amid New Delhi's concerns. The Sri Lankan decision to defer was expectedly slammed by Beijing, which had got a green light earlier. New Delhi considered preventing the ship from coming to Sri Lanka a necessity to ensure the region’s security. China described Sri Lanka’s actions a result of "completely unjustified" pressure from other countries which it said were "grossly interfering" into matters which do not fall under their ambit.
 
The presence of a tracking machine in such proximity is what raised India’s alarm.

Hambantota, the second largest port in Sri Lanka, is located along the route that links Southeast Asia with Africa and West Asia. It is a significant station on China's Belt and Road Initiative. In 2017, Colombo transferred its majority ownership to a Chinese company after failing to pay off growing debt. Since then, China has contributed significantly towards its development. 

Ever since the Sri Lankan government leased the port to China Merchant Port Holdings, both India and the US have flagged their concerns that this may eventually lead to it becoming a hub for the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean. While pointing out that this perfectly fits China's "string of pearls" strategy to encircle India in the Indian Ocean by expanding its land and marine footprint, security analysts in India have frequently questioned its financial viability.

Hambantota's strategic importance

The proximity of Hambantota to India may provide the Chinese navy with the opportunity for a long-desired maritime flex against India. Satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches are monitored by ships of the "Yuan Wang" class. About seven of these tracking ships, capable of traveling over the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, are owned by China. 

Beijing's land-based tracking stations are supplemented by the ships. They are meant to conduct satellite control and research tracking of China’s satellites in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean region through August and September. Yuan Wang 5’s significant areal reach, reportedly around 750 km, could mean that as many as six Indian ports in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh would have fallen under the Chinese radar. 

There were fears of espionage over several crucial installations in south India, ranging from ISRO’s satellite base at Sriharikota and the Kudankulam Nuclear power plant, to the Kalpakkam atomic energy plant and also the southern naval command in Kochi.  

This may have been one of China’s several initiatives to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean. The Pakistan Navy Ship (PNS) Taimur, a Chinese-built guided missile frigate, also got permission to stop at Colombo en route to Karachi to join the Pakistan Navy. The battleship with armaments is currently sailing to Pakistan for the first time after being built at the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai. 

Along the way, MAL-PAK IV, a joint exercise between the Malaysian Navy and PNS Taimur, was conducted.

Chinese assertion

China would always try to defend its actions by insisting that it exercises the “freedom of navigation in the high seas” and “fully respects the jurisdiction of coastal states of scientific exploration activities within their jurisdiction waters”. 

For India, there will always be doubts, questions and insecurities regarding the actual purpose of Yuan Wang 5 and anything likewise that happens in the future. Chinese intentions can never be clear. Similar concerns were expressed by India to Sri Lanka in 2014 regarding the docking of the Chinese destroyer Chang Xing Dao and submarine Changzheng 2 in Colombo. With the overambitious nature of this budding hegemon, events of similar nature would be common happening. 

(The writer is from the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Views are personal He can be contacted at 20sagniks01@gmail.com)

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