The controversial stopover of a Chinese surveillance vessel in Sri Lanka

Crew members of the

Despite pressure from Indians and Americans, Sri Lanka’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, elected on July 20 after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled, finally allowed a Chinese military surveillance vessel to dock in the southern port of Hambantota. of the Indian Ocean island. The 222-meter building, with 2,000 sailors on board, arrived on Tuesday August 16, officially to refuel, and should leave on August 22.

the Yuan Wang 5 should have reached port as early as August 11, but New Delhi and Washington strongly protested to Colombo, suspecting the ship of engaging in espionage activities.

After several days of discussions, Ranil Wickremesinghe gave the green light to Beijing on condition that it does not use the port for military purposes. He assured that the Yuan Wang 5 « does not fall into the category of military vessels », relaying the message of the Chinese authorities who claim that their vessel is carrying out marine research activities « consistent with international law and practice », not wearing « not to harm the security or the interests of any country ».

Indian media, citing experts, had on the contrary indicated that the ship was used in addition to ground tracking stations to follow the launches of satellites, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles by the Chinese army.

“String of pearls” strategy

According to Sunday Times, a Sri Lankan weekly, Colombo considered that the Indian and American objections were not sufficiently substantiated. This episode highlights the bitter battle for influence between India and China in the region.

Geostrategically, Hambantota sits on the route that connects Southeast Asia with Africa and Western Asia. This deep-water port is a component of President Xi Jinping’s major « New Silk Roads » project. He is also the symbol of the disaster of the Rajapaksa policy which led Sri Lanka to bankruptcy. Gotabaya and his brother, the former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, built in their family stronghold, in the south of the island, grandiose and useless infrastructures, a port, an international airport, a cricket stadium, but, in 2017, the government, unable to repay its debts, had to cede the port for ninety-nine years to the company China Merchants Port Holdings.

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India and the United States have repeatedly signaled their fears that Chinese control of Hambantota could harm their interests in the Indian Ocean by becoming a base for the Chinese navy. Indian security experts believe the port, whose viability is questionable, is part of China’s « string of pearls » strategy of encircling India in the Indian Ocean by bolstering its land and sea footprint.

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