The Government of Sri Lanka has granted permission to a controversial Chinese research vessel to visit the island despite neighbouring India's objection to the Ranil Wickremesinghe government, flagging the concern that it could spy on New Delhi's military installations, officials said. Earlier, the Wickremesinghe government had distanced itself from the decision, saying that its predecessor, the regime of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had allowed the docking of spy ship Yuan Wang 5.
International shipping and analytics sites say Yuan Wang 5 is a research and survey vessel, but India insists it is a dual-use spy ship. New Delhi is suspicious of Beijing's increasing presence in the Indian Ocean and influence in Sri Lanka, seeing both as being firmly within its sphere of influence.
The ship from the country that is ironically responsible for Sri Lanka's near-bankruptcy, Yuan Wang 5 was originally due to call at Sri Lanka's Chinese-run Hambantota port on 11 August. Colombo had then asked Beijing to indefinitely defer the visit following India's objections. However, Harbour Master of Sri Lanka Nirmal P Silva said he had received foreign ministry clearance for the ship to call at Hambantota from August 16 to 22. "The diplomatic clearance was received by me today. We will work with the local agent appointed by the vessel to ensure logistics at the port," Silva told a news agency.
Foreign ministry sources confirmed that Colombo had renewed permission for the visit, which had initially been granted on 12 July, a day before former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled following months of protests over the country's worst-ever economic crisis.
Rajapaksa — whose brother Mahinda borrowed heavily from China while president from 2005 to 2015 — resigned after escaping to Singapore.
Tens of thousands of protesters overran his palace and home in Colombo after accusing him of mismanagement in an economic crisis that has led to acute shortages of food, fuel and medicines.
Port officials said the Chinese vessel was about 1,000 km southeast of Sri Lanka on Friday night and was heading slowly towards the Hambantota deep sea port.
Sri Lanka leased the port to China for 99 years for $ 1.12 billion, less than the $ 1.4 billion Sri Lanka paid a Chinese company to build it.
According to India, the Chinese ship could be employed for space and satellite tracking. It has specific uses in intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
The Indian government has expressed concern that the ship could spy on its activities, and had lodged a complaint with Colombo.
New Delhi's foreign ministry has said it will closely monitor "any bearing on India's security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them".
Meanwhile, Pakistani warship PNS Taimur arrived at the Colombo port yesterday even while Sri Lanka was withholding permission to the Chinese 'research' vessel to anchor at its Hambantota port. The newly commissioned Chinese-built frigate Pakistani warship PNS Taimur will conduct a joint exercise with the Sri Lankan navy in the western seas.
Islamabad had to petition Colombo to permit PNS Taimur to weight anchor at Colombo after Bangladesh, in a pointed snub, denied permission on grounds that it was condoling the assassination of its Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Pro-Pakistan sympathisers had allegedly backed the massacre of Mujib’s family. Sri Lanka had earlier asked Beijing to defer the visit of Yuan Wang 5, allegedly a Chinese vessel for espionage.