Explainer: why is a Chinese ‘spy ship’ heading for a Sri Lankan port, what does it mean for India?

India is watch carefully the movement of a Chinese “spy ship” which is en route to Sri Lanka and will dock at its port of Hambantota around August 11. The ship’s visit to the Lankan port comes at a time when the country is grappling with a severe economic crisis, and India has reportedly already lodged a verbal protest against the ship’s visit.

What is this Chinese ship heading for Sri Lanka?

The “Yuan Wang 5”, a Chinese research and survey vessel, is en route to Hambantota, a strategically important deep-sea port developed mainly through loans from Beijing.

The “Yuan Wang” class ships are used to track launches of satellites, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). China has about seven such tracking vessels capable of operating in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. The ships supplement Beijing’s land-based tracking stations.

According to a US Department of Defense report, these space support ships are operated by the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), which is “a theater command-level organization established to centralize the strategic space of PLA, cyber, electronics, information, communications, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities”.

The “Yuan Wang 5” was built at China’s Jiangnan Shipyard and entered service in September 2007. The 222-meter-long, 25.2-meter-wide vessel is equipped with state-of-the-art tracking technology to transoceanic aerospace observation.

Its last surveillance mission was the launch of China’s “Long March 5B” rocket. He was also recently involved in maritime surveillance of the launch of China’s Tiangong space station’s first laboratory module.

Why is this ship heading for Sri Lanka?

According to the Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka (BRISL), “Yuan Wang 5” will enter Hambantota port on August 11 for one week and will likely depart on August 17 after resupply.

“The Yuan Wang 5 will carry out satellite control and research monitoring of Chinese satellites in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean region in August and September,” BRISL said on its website.

He added, “The visit of ‘Yuan Wang 5’ to Hambantota Port will be a great opportunity for Sri Lanka and developing countries in the region to learn and develop their own space programs.”

Hambantota is on the route connecting Southeast Asia with Africa and Western Asia. (Source: brisl.org)

Why is India concerned about this development?

The ‘Yuan Wang 5’ is a powerful scouting vessel whose significant air range – around 750km – means several ports in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh could be on China’s radar. Reports have claimed that several vital facilities in southern India could be at risk of being spied on.

Speaking about developments last week, Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi said: “We are aware of reports of a proposal to visit this vessel at Hambantota in August. … The Government is carefully monitoring any development affecting the security and economic interests of India and taking all necessary measures to safeguard them.

In response, China’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement reported by Reuters, said: “China hopes relevant parties will see and properly report China’s marine scientific research activities and refrain from interfering with normal and lawful maritime activities”.

Hambantota is the second largest port in Lanka. (Source: Google Maps)

Why is the port of Hambantota strategically crucial?

Hambantota, the second largest port in Lanka, lies on the route connecting Southeast Asia with Africa and West Asia. For China, this is an important step in its “Belt and Road” initiative. Its development was largely financed by China, and in 2017 Colombo sold its majority stake to a Chinese company after failing to repay budding debt.

Both India and the United States have repeatedly expressed concerns that Chinese control of the port could harm their interests in the Indian Ocean by becoming a hub for the PLA Navy. Security experts in India have often questioned its economic viability, while pointing out that it fits perfectly with China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy to encircle India in the Indian Ocean by increasing its footprint. land and sea.

Hambantota’s proximity to India has the potential to allow the Chinese Navy to have the maritime flex to India that it has long sought.

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