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China persuades Sri Lanka to let Yuan Wang 5 dock at Hambantota: Why it’s a spy ship explained

The spy ship (technically, a “satellite tracking vessel”) Yuan Wang 5 arrived at Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka on 16 August ignoring the express concerns of both India and the US. The vessel, equipped with instruments clearly meant for espionage, was earlier scheduled to dock at the China-backed Hambantota port on 11 August for “replenishment”, according to officials. Its arrival was postponed by five days.

The Ranil Wickremesinghe government had earlier bluffed by saying its predecessor, the regime of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had given permission to the Chinese spy ship to dock at Hambantota.

Yuan Wang (spelt also as “Yuanwang”) 5 was earlier scheduled to dock at the China-backed Hambantota port on 11 August for “replenishment”, according to Sri Lankan officials. Its arrival was postponed by five days after Sri Lankan authorities made a request to China, reportedly citing Indian security concerns.

China has slammed New Delhi’s apprehensions as “unjustified” and “morally irresponsible”, and “urged” New Delhi to “not disturb normal exchanges” between the two countries. New Delhi “rejected insinuations” that Sri Lanka was pressured.

Although deferred by a few days the vessel’s arrival, and stay for nearly a week at the southern port, points to Sri Lanka’s strong ties with China, even as Colombo finds itself on a sticky diplomatic wicket, managing the competing geostrategic interests of India and China in the island nation. Colombo recently said it firmly backs the “One China Policy”, in the wake of US-China tensions in Taiwan.

Five senior MPs, including some who identify as “independent” in the parliament, along with Chinese officials, were present at a ceremonial welcome to the vessel today morning. “Long live China and Sri Lanka friendship,” a red banner held by the crew on the upper deck of the vessel read. The comes a day after India gifted a Dornier marine surveillance aircraft to Sri Lanka to enhance its “security capabilities”.

How can this vessel of China be considered a spy ship?

The following details should make it clear why this is a spy ship. The Yuan Wang class ships are used for tracking and support of satellite and intercontinental ballistic missiles by the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force of China. The Yuan Wang class is not a single class of identical design, but instead, a group of different designs grouped under the same series that share one name.

The detailed specifications for every ship are not released by the PLASSF. Yuanwang 1 and Yuanwang 2 are thought to have a displacement tonnage of around 21,000 tonnes when fully loaded, with a crew of about 470 and a length of about 190 m. Their propulsion is from one Sulzer Ltd. diesel engine, with a top speed of 20 knots (37 km/h).

Premier Zhou Enlai had proposed that China should have such ships in 1965. Mao Zedong gave a go-ahead to the proposal in 1968. The first two ships of the class, Yuan Wang 1 and Yuan Wang 2 were built at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai and put to sea on 31 August 1977 and 1 September 1978 respectively. The general designer of this class is Xu Xueyan. For the first time, this gave China the ability to track launches and satellites that were not over their territory.

The first survey mission of the two ships was in May 1980. After being used for tracking launches of indigenously developed communications satellites, Yuan Wang 1 and Yuan Wang 2 underwent overhauls in 1986, so they could be used for supporting international satellite launches by China.

Two more ships of the class have been built. The first was Yuan Wang 3, which was commissioned on 20 October 1995. The Yuan Wang 4 tracking ship was constructed by China State Shipbuilding Corporation and delivered to the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General on 18 July 1999. It had been converted from the previously used Xiang Yang Hong 10 scientific survey ship.

Another two Yuanwang-class vessels were launched in Shanghai in early 2007.

Pictures of Yuan Wang 6 were published, and both Yuan Wang 5 and the newly commissioned ship were on duty for the Shenzhou 7 mission.

During the Shenzhou spacecraft flights, the four ships were positioned as follows:

  • Yuan Wang 1 in the Yellow Sea
  • Yuan Wang 2 at 1,500 km (about 900 statute miles) southwest of French Polynesia
  • Yuan Wang 3 off the Namibian coast
  • Yuan Wang 4 off the coast of Western Australia in the Indian Ocean

But Shenzhou 7 mission was a space mission. How is that spying?

According to the United States Strategic Command, at 15:07 Greenwich Mean on 27 September 2008, the Shenzhou 7 ship passed within 45 km of the International Space Station. There is no international law defining the distance of passage of outer space objects. China did not respond to queries about why it allowed its ship to reach a point so close to the space station. 

Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, noted that the Shenzhou 7 had launched its companion satellite BX-1 4 h earlier. The IASC is a think-tank” focused on medium and long-term security issues and their impact on the security of the United States and its key allies. He noted “China’s track record of using all of its Shenzhou missions since 1999 for dual military-civil missions,” and speculated that China may have used the opportunity to pass near the space station to test “co-orbital” antisatellite interception technology.

It is obvious China was trying to gather data from the International Space Station.

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