China on Tuesday said the activities of its high-tech research vessel will not affect the security of any country and should not be “obstructed” by any “third party,” as the ship berthed at Sri Lanka’s strategic southern port of Hambantota amid Indian and US concerns.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the ship ‘Yuan Wang 5’ has successfully berthed at Hambantota Port with active cooperation from the Sri Lankan side.
Wang parried a question of extending financial support to Sri Lanka, which went bankrupt defaulting on USD 51 billion in foreign debt which included loans from China.
He said that when the ship arrived, the Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong hosted the onsite welcoming ceremony at the Hambantota port, which Beijing took over on 99-year-lease as a debt swap in 2017.
Apparently, referring to Indian and US concerns over the ship with military applications berthing at the Hambantota port in the Indian Ocean, Wang said, “I want to stress again that the marine scientific research activities of the Yuan Wang-5 ship are consistent with international law and international customary practice.”
“They do not affect the security and economic interests of any country and should not be obstructed by any third party,” he said.
He said the ceremony was attended by a representative of Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickramasinghe besides more than ten heads of parties and heads of friendly communities.
The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, as Chinese and Sri Lankan national anthems were played, and the Sri Lankan people performed the traditional folk dance on the red carpet, he said.
It will take some time for the Yuan Wang 5 research ship to complete the replenishment of necessary supplies after the docking, hinting that the vessel may be there for a while.
The Sri Lankan government, which earlier asked the Chinese government to delay the arrival of the ship after India and the US reportedly expressed concern over its specialised in satellite and ballistic missile tracking, finally granted the port access to the vessel from August 16 to 22.
On Monday, Wang declined to reveal details of talks with Colombo leading to the bankrupt island’s government reversing its earlier stand to defer the high-tech vessel’s entry. “As for the specific questions that you raised, we have mentioned China’s position quite a few times,” Wang said when asked about what were the consultations that were held.
After Sri Lanka asked China to defer the entry of the ship, Beijing on August 8 reacted angrily saying it was “completely unjustified” for certain countries to cite the so-called security concerns to pressure Colombo and “grossly interfere” in its internal affairs.
The ship with over 2,000 crew has advanced facilities to track satellites and ballistic missiles, according to the Chinese official media accounts.
Sri Lanka said it permitted the ship after extensive consultations. Colombo’s permission has also raised speculation that Beijing could make a positive announcement about Sri Lanka’s previous request to defer the loans it owed to China and its plea for bridge financing to tide over the crisis until it received International Monetary Fund (IMF) support.
Asked, now that the ship has been permitted to dock and whether China will provide the much-needed financial assistance to Sri Lanka considering its economy was in dire straits, Wang on Tuesday said, “as we have stressed many times, as Sri Lanka’s friendly neighbour, China feels deeply for the economic and social difficulties facing Sri Lanka at the moment.”
China has been doing its utmost to support and help Sri Lanka pull through the difficulties. This is what we have been doing and what we will continue to do, he said.
China, which has extensive investments in Sri Lanka running into billions of dollars, has provided USD 73 million in aid and shipments of rice but maintained a steady silence on Colombo’s request for a bailout package as it became bankrupt after running out of foreign exchange reserves in April this year.
China is the main creditor of Sri Lanka with investment in infrastructure. Debt restructuring of Chinese loans would be key to the island’s success in the ongoing talks with the IMF for a bailout.
Wang pointed out that China and Sri Lanka are traditionally friendly neighbours. For years, the two countries have maintained close cooperation in marine scientific research.
“China is ready to work with the Sri Lankan side to consolidate political mutual trust, deepen win-win cooperation and promote the sound and steady development of the bilateral relations,” Wang said.
The southern deep-sea port of Hambantota, which has been developed largely with Chinese loans, is considered strategically important because of its location. India has said that it carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests.
New Delhi is concerned about the possibility of the ship’s tracking systems attempting to snoop on Indian installations while being on its way to the Sri Lankan port. India has traditionally taken a stern view of Chinese military vessels in the Indian Ocean and has protested such visits with Sri Lanka in the past.
The ties between India and Sri Lanka came under strain after Colombo permitted a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to dock in one of its ports in 2014.
India’s concerns have been focused on Hambantota Port in particular. In 2017, Colombo leased the southern port to China Merchant Port Holdings for 99 years, after Sri Lanka was unable to keep its loan repayment commitments, fanning fears over the potential use of the port for military purposes.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday said it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called security concerns to pressure Sri Lanka.” India on Friday rejected China’s “insinuations” that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the planned visit by the Chinese research vessel, but asserted that it will take decisions based on its security concerns.
External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in New Delhi that Sri Lanka, as a sovereign country, makes its own independent decisions and noted that India would make its judgment on its security concerns based on the prevailing situation in the region, especially in the border areas.