The ripples from the Yuan Wang 5 continue to be felt in New Delhi long after the Chinese ship left Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, where it docked from August 16 to 22 despite Indian concerns.
The Chinese advanced satellite tracking ship was originally supposed to arrive at Hambantota – which China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited China acquired on a 99-year lease in 2017 after Sri Lanka found it difficult to repay the loans taken from China to build the port – on August 11 for restocking and refuelling. Commissioned in 2007, the Yuan Wang 5 has been extensively involved in China’s space programme, as well as the construction of the Beidou navigation satellite system. According to Xinhua, the Research/Survey Vessel, a part of China’s People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), has conducted over 80 maritime tracking missions over the past 15 years, sailing more than 570,000 nautical miles and berthed at several international ports.
However, Colombo asked Beijing to defer the visit ‘indefinitely’ following concerns raised by New Delhi, with Indian media reports describing it as a dual use ‘spy ship’ capable of monitoring everything within a radius of 750 km, including space and underwater assets.
China obviously saw this as a diplomatic snub by the tiny island nation, already reeling under a major financial crisis and massive public protests which forced president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign from his post, and read Colombo the riot act. Nikkei Asia quoted a Sri Lankan foreign ministry official as saying Beijing was “especially angry because approval was granted and then it was withdrawn.”
Adding to the Chinese pique was the fact that in October last year, Colombo had categorically rejected 20,000 tons of pathogen tainted organic fertilizer shipped by a Chinese company. The Sri Lankan government said that not only would Sri Lanka not accept the consignment, it would deny permission for the Chinese ship carrying the fertiliser to dock in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka owes China nearly $2 billion in debt repayment this year which Colombo is seeking to restructure, and talks are on for a $ 4 billion Chinese aid package and a free trade agreement between the two nations. Reports said that in a series of meetings between Chinese and Sri Lankan officials in Beijing and Colombo, the Chinese categorically warned Sri Lanka that denying permission to the Yuan Wang to dock at Hambantota would jeopardise all these discussions.
After what it described as “extensive consultations at a high level through diplomatic channels with all parties concerned,” Colombo announced on August 13 that the ship would be allowed to dock at Hambantota from 16-22 August, “on condition that it will keep the Automatic Identification System (AIS) switched on within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Sri Lanka and no scientific research to be conducted in Sri Lankan waters.”
Lankan media reports said the decision to allow the Chinese vessel to dock at Hambantota was publicly questioned by Sri Lanka’s former navy chief and Public Security Minister, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara. Subsequently, Zhang Hongwang, the captain of the Yuan Wang 5 snubbed Admiral Weerasekera by refusing to shake hands with him and denied him permission to board his ship.
The delay in granting this permission however gave India time to deploy four satellites and a communications warship in the Arabian Sea to monitor, intercept and scramble signals from the Chinese vessel. These include two military communications GSAT 7 satellites and the EMISAT spy satellite operated by the DRDO, which hosts the highly classified Kautilya electronic intelligence package, capable of intercepting, deflecting and scrambling surveillance signals from spy ships. The Yuan Wang (Long View) 5 has a sophisticated tracking system that connects with Chinese satellites, which track intercontinental ballistic missiles and other military intelligence assets.
The two GSAT satellites used were Rukmini, used mostly by the Indian Navy for secure real time communications between its warships, submarines, aircraft and land systems, and the GSAT 7A, or Angry Bird, which enhances the Network Centric Warfare capabilities of the Indian Air Force as well as the Indian Army’s Aviation Corps by linking air bases, radar stations, and aircraft including Airborne Early Warning and Control platforms in real time. The extremely hi-tech Kautilya package aboard the Electromagnetic Intelligence Gathering Satellite (EMISAT) was recently used to map Chinese radar and other electronic assets along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, where the Indian army and the PLA have been facing off since the violent clashes in April May 2020. The RISAT 2 BR1, which has a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) that can take pictures of the earth both during the day and night, boosting India’s observational capabilities by provide multi-spectral detailed images of the country and its borders in 2D and 3D, was also deployed.
Sources said real time Electronic Intelligence inputs from American, Israeli and satellites ‘from other friendly nations’ were also used to monitor the Yuang Wang 5, while Indian defence, research and military centres were advised to be extremely cautious about all electronic communications during the Chinese ship’s stay at Hambantota.
At the same time, India’s ministry of external affairs categorically denied it had put any pressure on Sri Lanka over the Yuan Wang, and insisted that while it retained the right to voice its concerns and address anything it saw as inimical to its own security, India would never interfere with the sovereign rights of another nation.
Less than a week after the Yuang Wang 5 left Hambantota, a column by the Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong published in the Sri Lanka Guardian on August 26 (https://slguardian.org/author/qi-zhenhong/) sparked another round of vicious Sino-Indian sparring.
In the column, titled ‘From the One China Principle to the Huan Wang 5’ Qi argued that Beijing and Colombo had successfully thwarted the “rude and unreasonable interference from third parties” to prevent Yuan Wang 5 from docking at Hambantota. Contending that India was “always” making “various groundless excuses to bully Sri Lanka and trample on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence repeatedly,” he said “Sri Lanka (has) overcome aggression from its northern neighbour 17 times,” and “any infringement on the national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka shall not be tolerated.” According to him, “External obstruction based on so-called ‘security concerns’ but without any evidence from certain forces is de facto a thorough interference into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence.”
New Delhi, already bristling over the Chinese ship being allowed to dock despite its concerns, reacted with somewhat uncharacteristic aggressiveness, with the Indian High Commission in Colombo posting a series of tweets (https://twitter.com/IndiainSL/status/1563559042077048839) “We have noted the remarks of the Chinese Ambassador. His violation of basic diplomatic etiquette may be a personal trait or reflecting a larger national attitude,” it said, adding: “His view of #SriLanka’s northern neighbour may be coloured by how his own country behaves. #India, we assure him, is very different. His imputing a geopolitical context to the visit of a purported scientific research vessel is a giveaway.”
The second part was a reference to the Chinese ambassador linking the Taiwan issue with the docking of the Yuan Wang 5 in Hambantota.
“The Spokesman of @IndiainSL issued the above tweets in response to queries concerning the article by Chinese Ambassador to #SriLanka which, inter alia, drew connection between militarization of Taiwan Straits and visit of China’s Yuan Wang 5 ship to Hambantota,” the High Commission tweeted.
Arguing that “#SriLanka needs support, not unwanted pressure or unnecessary controversies to serve another country’s agenda,” it blamed Chinese “opaqueness and debt driven agendas” and noted Beijing’s half-hearted attempts to help Sri Lanka during its current economic crisis.
India has extended financial as well as humanitarian assistance estimated at over $ 4 billion to Sri Lanka since the crisis began earlier this year. Apart from sending emergency food rations, medicines and fuel almost on a daily basis, New Delhi has given Sri Lanka a soft loan of $1.9 billion, fuel worth $2.5 billion, and even shipped an extra 40,000 tonnes of rice for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations under India’s neighbourhood first policy. Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank of India deferred payments owed by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka estimated at almost $400 million.
Acknowledging this, newly appointed President Ranil Wickremesinghe told the Sri Lankan Parliament that “The Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has given us a breath of life. On behalf of my people and that of my own, I convey our gratitude to Prime Minister Modi, the Government and people of India.”
And a day before the Yuan Wang docked, India gifted a Dornier 228 to the Sri Lankan Air Force to conduct Maritime and Coastal Surveillance Operations. The aircraft was provided for an interim period of two years till a plane being specifically manufactured in India for Sri Lanka is ready.
Privately, Indian officials admitted that while they sympathised with Sri Lanka’s dilemma, any attempt by China to turn Hambantota into a military facility was obviously not acceptable to New Delhi. They also pointed out that as per the 1987 accord between India and Sri Lanka, their territories cannot be used for activities deemed prejudicial to each other’s unity, integrity and security. However, they also admitted that any attempt to coerce Sri Lanka would be counterproductive, since it would strengthen the hands of the anti-India elements in the country, many of whom were patronised and supported by China.
In November 2014, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that a Chinese Type 039 (Song)-class submarine, escorting People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships conducting anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, had docked at the Colombo International Container Terminal. In New Delhi, responding to a written question, then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told the Lok Sabha that “A conventional Chinese submarine berthed at Colombo Port from September 7-13 and October 31 November 6, 2014.” However, “Government of Sri Lanka has informed that the submarine visited Colombo for replenishment purposes and has reassured that the government of Sri Lanka will not do anything against the security interest of India,” she added. The first visit came days before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official visit to India September 17 to 20.
But barely seven weeks later, Sri Lanka allowed the Changzheng-2, a Han class nuclear powered attack submarine, and its escorting warship Chang Xing Dao to dock at Colombo. “A submarine and a warship have docked at Colombo harbour. They called on Oct. 31 and will be here for five days for refuelling and crew refreshment,” said Sri Lankan navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya. “This is nothing unusual. Since 2010, 230 warships have called at Colombo port from various countries on goodwill visits and for refuelling and crew refreshment.”
Obviously, the back-to-back visits raised several red flags in South Block, and Sri Lankan officials were called in to express India’s discomfiture.
Three years later, as Prime Minister Modi arrived in Colombo for an official two-day visit May 11, 2017, Sri Lankan officials told Reuters that Colombo had rejected China’s request to dock one of its submarines in Colombo that month. “It might happen later,” another official told Reuters, adding that China had requested approval to use the port around May 16 “sometime back”.
The docking of the Yuan Wang is clear sign that despite India’s attempts, China still has significant influence and leverage over Colombo. As one Indian official explained, “For one, Sri Lanka owes China billions of dollars in debt, and that gives Beijing considerable leverage. Two, China has no qualms about buying support in Sri Lanka, with several senior politicians and other influential citizens clearly owing their massive fortunes to Chinese benevolence. This is not something we are making up, but known to almost every Sri Lankan.”
The fact that Hambantota is on a lease to China adds to the problem, and China is likely to keep pushing the envelope to see what it can get away with. While Colombo has repeatedly assured India that it would never allow anything which undermines India’s security, it too has certain compulsions which New Delhi cannot wish away.
As for the Chinese, Beijing’s Indian Ocean ambitions are clearly linked to the Chinese Maritime Silk Route, part of Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. Securing Hambantota port for 99 years by adroitly and cunningly putting Sri Lanka into a debt trap not only fits into that plan, it also meshes into the String of Pearls, or ports that the Chinese want to choke India with. The Chinese built and funded deep water ports in Kyaukpyu, Myanmar, in the Bay of Bengal, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar on the Arabian Sea in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province, the Haidob port on Sudan’s Red Sea coast and two ports in the eastern seaboard in tiny Djibouti, which is a chokepoint for global shipping, are some of the ‘pearls’ in this plan. Attempts to get Chittagong port in Bangladesh, India’s eastern neighbour, as well in ports in the Maldives have been unsuccessful so far, with Dhaka firmly insisting that Chittagong will not host any military vessels, and the Maldives pulling out of negotiations to build a “Joint Ocean Observation Station” on Makunudhoo, the westernmost island in the country, preferring instead to align with India.
“This time, the docking of the Chinese ship actually gave us an opportunity to test our countermeasures, including our ability to project an electronic shield over the ship. However, given the challenge we face from the PLA along our northern borders, we need to be sure that our maritime borders are as watertight as we can make it,” an official said.
While the Indian forces are extremely confident of taking on any Chinese adventurism, both along the Himalayan borders as well as in the Indian Ocean, India now needs to take the fight to the Chinese by clearly defining its red lines and spelling out the consequences of any violation of those lines. For instance, even a simple thing like hinting at reviewing the One China policy would have major ramifications for China, since it could initiate a domino effect with several other smaller nations following suit.
As one official put it, “neither side wants a real war, particularly with the Taiwan and Ukraine issues still playing out. Besides, the Chinese philosophy of trying to win a war without a shot being fired is a game that two can play.”