India, China ministers at summit as Chinese ship heads to Sri Lanka

India worries that the Chinese-built and leased Hambantota port will be used by China as a military base in its own backyard. PHOTO: HIPG.IK

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Indian and Chinese foreign ministers attended a regional conference in Uzbekistan on Friday (July 29), a day after New Delhi expressed concern over a Chinese military ship's planned visit to a strategic port in India's southern neighbour Sri Lanka.

New Delhi worries that the Chinese-built and leased Hambantota port will be used by China as a military base in India's backyard. The US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) port is near the main shipping route from Asia to Europe.

Relations between India and China have been strained since armed clashes on their border two years ago killed at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers.

Indian media have said that Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, who last met in Indonesia earlier this month, could hold a bilateral meeting in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) conference. India’s foreign ministry said it had no information on that.

Shipping data from Refinitiv Eikon showed research and survey vessel Yuan Wang 5 was enroute to Hambantota and was expected to arrive on Aug 11, at a time when Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in seven decades. India has provided its neighbour nearly US$4 billion in support this year alone.

China has not officially commented on the ship’s visit and the matter has not gained traction in Chinese media. China’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.  

Foreign security analysts describe the Yuan Wang 5 as one of China’s latest generation space-tracking ships, used to monitor satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile launches.  

The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military modernisation says the Yuan Wang ships are operated by the Strategic Support Force of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

During a weekly briefing late on Thursday, an Indian foreign ministry spokesman said the government was monitoring the planned visit of the Chinese ship, adding that New Delhi would protect its security and economic interests.

Spokesman Arindam Bagchi declined to say if Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. SCO members include China, India, Russia, Pakistan and central Asian nations.

Sri Lanka is a "dialogue partner" in the group but it is not immediately clear if it is attending.

India has already lodged a verbal protest with the Sri Lankan government against the ship's visit, Reuters reported on Thursday.

A Sri Lankan consulting firm, the Belt & Road Initiative Sri Lanka, said on its website that Yuan Wang 5 would be in Hambantota for a week and will "conduct space tracking, satellite control and research tracking in the north-western part of the Indian Ocean region through August and September".

Sri Lanka formally handed over commercial activities at its main southern port to a Chinese company in 2017 on a 99-year lease after struggling to repay its debt.

China is one of Sri Lanka's biggest lenders and has also funded airports, roads and railways, unnerving India, which is now trying to claw back lost ground.

Sri Lanka angered India in 2014 when it allowed a Chinese submarine and a warship to dock in Colombo.

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