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Will Sri Lanka stand up to Chinese pressure on the spy ship row?

The 'Yuang Wang 5' Chinese spy ship (Photo: @InsightGL/Twitter)

By mounting pressure on Sri Lanka to accept a research ship, which India calls a spy ship, Beijing is testing the depth and the mood in the new Sri Lankan administration of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.

Experts say that by insisting that Sri Lanka invite the Yuan Wang 5 tracking and survey vessel to dock at the Hambantota Port on August 11 for a week, China has shown duplicity in its relations with Sri Lanka. Though China has not stepped forward to help Sri Lanka—which is grappling with public discontent and a grave financial crisis since the beginning of this year, Beijing is definitely asserting itself on the new administration in Colombo.

China is also aware that the mood in Sri Lanka is fairly anti-China and also anti-Gotabaya Rajapaksa as people are questioning whether expensive Chinese infrastructure projects—the airport in Hambantota, the Lotus tower in Colombo and many others—were for the benefit of Sri Lanka or the Chinese companies. Sri Lanka had to give away the Hambantota Port on lease to China for 99 years after it could not pay off the debt incurred on the construction of the port.

Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at South Asian University, Dhananjay Tripathi says: "Sri Lanka is caught in a quandary. It cannot refuse China because it is under a pile of debt. Also, by giving a nod to the entry of the ship we can see that there is a strong Chinese influence in the current administration".

Tripathi says that there will also be a section in India's neighbouring countries that will be anti-India. "We have a section that opposes India in Sri Lanka as well. But I feel that India should ignore such voices. Over time these voices will get neutralised". Many anti-India sentiments are driven by personal political agendas as well external forces, he added.

India has, largely, been the only country to have come to Sri Lanka’s aid since the beginning of this year with nearly $4 billion in lines of credit (LoC) and humanitarian aid. Colombo’s repeated requests for help went unheard in Beijing.

Regarding the comments made by the outspoken Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Monday, Tripathi says: "It is very cunning of China to use a third country to spy on India. If Sri Lanka is a sovereign country with the right to develop relations with other countries, India too is a sovereign State with a genuine right to express its concerns over the arrival of a spy ship". 

In a regular foreign ministry briefing on Monday, Wang had said that it was “completely unjustified for certain countries to cite the so-called ‘security concerns’ to pressure Sri Lanka.” He was indirectly referring to India.

India had last week asked Sri Lanka to defer the 'Yuan Wang 5' research ship's docking at the commercial port of Hambantota over fears that the ship will be detrimental to India's defence and economic interests in the Indian Ocean region. 

Military experts say that the ship is one of China's latest space-tracking ships which can monitor satellites, missiles and rockets, and hence India's concerns.

Read More: With billions of dollars, India's Neighbourhood First policy comes to the aid of South Asia