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Crisis deepens over Chinese vessel

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The Chinese Embassy will consult Beijing before responding to Sri Lanka’s request on Friday that the scheduled docking of the Yuan Wang 5 tracking vessel at the Hambantota Port be postponed, Sri Lanka was told yesterday.

Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong conveyed this to President Ranil Wickremesinghe during a brief meeting held at the diplomat’s request yesterday, authoritative sources said. The docking of the ship has turned into a geopolitical headache for the Sri Lankan Government, with India lodging strong protests on the basis that the “spy vessel” threatens its national security.

Clearance to anchor the vessel was granted by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Defence Ministry and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) before President Wickremesinghe took over. But Indian news reports claim that New Delhi had not been informed at the time until it sought clarification from Colombo.

The vessel is now in mid-sea near Indonesia, heading directly for Hambantota. It is scheduled to berth in Hambantota from August 11-17. But on Friday, amidst a continued expression of displeasure from India, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry wrote a Third Person Note (TPN) to the Chinese Embassy requesting “that the arrival date of the vessel Yuan Wang 5 in Hambantota be deferred until further consultations are made on this matter”.

Another TPN dated July 12, 2022, had granted approval for the vessel to dock at Hambantota provided that the vessel keeps its automatic identification systems (AIS) transponders switched off within Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone; and no scientific research or surveys are conducted in Sri Lanka waters.

AIS transponders are designed to automatically provide position, identification and other information about the ship to other ships and to coastal authorities.

Upon receipt of Friday’s missive, Ambassador Qi requested an urgent meeting with President Wickremesinghe to discuss concerns regarding the vessel.

India’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Arindam Bagchi recently said, “The Government (of India) carefully monitors any developments having a bearing on India’s security and economic interests, and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them. I think that should be a clear message.”

But behind the scenes, stronger messages have been issued. The Yuan Wang 5 has the capacity to track satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles and is equipped with a large parabolic tracking antenna and various sensors.

Indian media have expressed fear that it may be able to monitor India’s missile tests from Wheeler Island off the coast of Odisha, thereby gathering information regarding range, etc. India is also currently laying military submarine cables.

Sri Lanka will have to manage the situation at a time when the Government is poised to start debt restructuring talks. India and China are two of the biggest creditors and their cooperation is crucial.

(sundaytimes.lk)

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