The enthusiastic welcome to Yang Wang 5 depicts the Chinese agency in Sri Lanka ignoring the security concerns of India.
The Chinese dual-use spy vessel, Yuan Wang 5, was heading towards Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port on the southern coast on 11 August to berth for seven days. The vessel operates under China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLASSF bring in civilian assets such as Yuan Wang 5 to augment the military capabilities and capacities. This gives it certain leverage to hide its military agenda and project its commitment to civilian research purposes. Elizabeth C Economy, a senior fellow at Hoover Institute, explains in her book The World According to China’ that the ‘SSF is designed to serve as a coordinating body for military and civilian research and development: nine universities have signed a cooperation agreement with it.’ The vessel, used for space and satellite tracking, with specific usage in intercontinental ballistic missile launches was to be deployed in the Sri Lankan waters and Hambantota port, but there is no guarantee the Chinese will limit it to its official purpose during the visit.
The vessel, used for space and satellite tracking, with specific usage in intercontinental ballistic missile launches was to be deployed in the Sri Lankan waters and Hambantota port, but there is no guarantee the Chinese will limit it to its official purpose during the visit.
The PLASSF has used the same tactic in many nations including Sri Lanka and its waters in the past through submarine port calls at crucial times, especially during internal political challenges. The October 2014 visit took place when then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was three months away from his Presidential election. The same pattern was seen in Australia before the Australian election in May 2022 when the Haiwangxing intelligence collection vessel of PLA-N was navigating as close as 50 nautical miles to the Harold E. Holt Communication Station that provides Very Low Frequency (VLF) communication transmission services for Australian, the United States and allied submarines. The Chinese strategic manoeuvres were well calculated by Beijing to deploy military assets to the waters of the Indian Ocean which created pressure on New Delhi and Canberra during the last few months. The denial or acceptance of such Chinese manoeuvres by littorals like Sri Lanka has a consequence and heavy burden on its foreign policy establishment, which require strengthening its bilateral relationship with China. Beijing usually oscillates between its soft power, sharp power, and hard power from time to time, testing the genuine interest and power calculation of the new regime in Colombo, especially to understand Colombo’s foreign policy toward New Delhi. The enthusiastic welcome to Yang Wang 5, waving Sri Lankan and Chinese flags with the presence of several parliamentarians depicts the Chinese agency in Sri Lanka, ignoring the security concerns of India. In the past, this was clear when a Chinese submarine port call was requested in May 2017 at a time when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting Sri Lanka and President Maithripala Sirisena denied the Chinese request. While it was refused a few days after the request, there was clear tension and pressure on President Sirisena. The Chinese Defence Attaché Senior Colonel Xu Jianwei in a meeting with this author in Colombo explained that “the rejection was nothing for us
The Chinese strategic manoeuvres were well calculated by Beijing to deploy military assets to the waters of the Indian Ocean which created pressure on New Delhi and Canberra during the last few months.
The spy ship’s purpose of extracting intelligence will become effortless when China dominates the respective telecommunication infrastructure of countries like Sri Lanka. The Huawei proposal lying on President Sirisena’s table in 2017 at the same time when he rejected the submarine visit is a clear example. Sirisena stood against Huawei’s proposal to assist law and order, including surveillance cameras to monitor traffic and police in Sri Lanka where the law-and-order ministry was not under the President at that time. There was a clear warning of Chinese backchannel entry into Sri Lanka’s intelligence and communications network. Steven Feldstein explains that through such projects, Huawei alone is responsible for providing AI surveillance technology to at least fifty countries worldwide and many BRI nations. Uganda’s USD$126 million CCTV project by Huawei was clear evidence. The capture of more than 80 percent of the entire telecommunication backbone by Chinese hardware was visible in Sri Lanka which agreed to Huawei’s 5G expansion during the previous Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime. In the present day, the Yuan Wang 5 visit is taking place when Sri Lanka is in the midst of a political-economic crisis, with limited strategic choices to make against China. Past strategic blunders made by President Wickremsinghe with China when he was Prime Minister are well known. In 2015, it was Wickremesinghe who was a strong critic of Chinese projects and promised investigations to expose the corruption of Rajapaksa which ended up unsuccessful. In the present day, Wickremesinghe does not want to go through the same exercise. His focus is to bring in USD$4 billion of financial assistance from China. According to Dr Jehan Perera, a senior Sri Lankan academic “Sri Lanka needs financial assistance, and it would not want to displease China by revoking the permission”. The heavy dependency on debt and financial assistance from China has increased Beijing’s strategic manoeuvring space on the island. Thus, by approving the permission for the Chinese vessel, Wickremesinghe made a strategic miscalculation.
The enthusiastic welcome to Yang Wang 5, waving Sri Lankan and Chinese flags with the presence of several parliamentarians depicts the Chinese agency in Sri Lanka, ignoring the security concerns of India.
Second, close to USD$4 billion of mixed economic assistance by India on the island during the crisis has propelled New Delhi to regain its position lost during the Rajapaksa regime and win public trust as a neighbour that supported Sri Lanka at the most pressing time, especially when China is dragging its feet on its debt restructuring support for the island. Yuan Wang 5 in India’s immediate periphery will alert New Delhi of China’s persistence in exerting its influence despite the change of the pro-China Rajapaksa regime. Third, the timing of the Yuan Wang 5 visit is three months away from the gathering of the communist party to re-elect President Xi as the party leader and head of the military commission, which requires a necessary projection of Xi’s strength and forces him to be an ultranationalist defending Chinese PLASSF strategy in two strategic theatres — the East China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The acceptance of the Chinese vessel entry will send a strong message to Beijing that the new regime will continue the pro-Rajapaksa China policy. The visit of Yuan Wang 5 will not limit China’s ambition in distant waters and China will have little inclination to modify its hard power posture and behaviour. Beijing’s display of hard power by deploying military vessels has also undermined its soft power potential adding more to the high levels of popular distrust in China by respective nations. In the post-pandemic era, with its stance on ‘Wolf warrior diplomacy’ and hard power, many nations will project China as a ‘revisionist power’ that intends to turn their regions into its sphere of influence. With the financial crisis and debt unsustainability especially with fewer returns from Chinese projects, China’s benign and benevolent image would further erode with hybrid civil-military activities in nations like Sri Lanka.
The heavy dependency on debt and financial assistance from China has increased Beijing’s strategic manoeuvring space on the island.
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Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is an international security and geopolitics analyst and strategic advisor from Sri Lanka. He has led two government think tanks providing strategic advocacy. ...Read More +