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Chinese military ship docks in Sri Lanka over Indian, U.S. objections

China's Yuan Wang 5 research and survey vessel arrives at Sri Lanka's Hambantota International Port on Aug. 16. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A Chinese navy ship at the center of a diplomatic spat docked in a southern port in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, marking a small triumph for Beijing over India and the United States.

The Yuan Wang 5 arrived before 8 a.m. on Tuesday and will stay for three days, according to the Hambantota International Port Group. The ship, which reportedly carried 2,000 sailors, was welcomed in a traditional Sri Lankan ceremony attended by Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong and Sri Lankan lawmakers. Footage from the event showed the dignitaries sitting on a red carpet in front of the docked Chinese military vessel while its crew held a massive red banner along a deck that read: “Hello Sri Lanka, Long Live Sri Lanka — China Friendship.”

Indian and U.S. officials had raised concerns about the political optics of a Chinese navy vessel docking at Hambantota International Port, which the Sri Lankan government leased to state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings in 2017 after Sri Lanka failed to repay debts to China. The port’s transfer was condemned by the United States as a prime example of China’s harmful lending practices and its growing influence over the island nation — allegations that China has vehemently denied.

The port is also seen as a potential strategic foothold for the Chinese navy to project power into the Indian Ocean and Middle East. India has warned in recent weeks that the Yuan Wang 5, a space-tracking ship that is reportedly unarmed but outfitted with advanced sensors, could spy on Indian defense installations. India said it would take necessary countermeasures to safeguard national security.

Indian officials have also argued that New Delhi extended substantial financial assistance this year to Sri Lanka — about $4 billion — as the Sri Lankan economy entered free fall. They said Sri Lanka should refuse the Chinese vessel entry to a politically sensitive port so close to India. The bankrupt island nation, which is seeking to restructure its debts, counts China and India among its creditors.

“When a small, bankrupt nation like Sri Lanka delivers a diplomatic slap to New Delhi by hosting a Chinese surveillance ship at its commercial port of Hambantota, it is a stunning reminder of both India’s feckless foreign policy and receding influence in its strategic backyard,” Brahma Chellaney, a former member of India’s national security advisory board, said Tuesday on Twitter.

On Monday, less than a day before the Chinese ship pulled into Hambantota, the Indian military gave two surveillance planes to Sri Lanka as a gesture of friendship.

Under pressure from India, Sri Lanka asked China last week to defer the vessel’s arrival. Beijing responded angrily and accused other countries of meddling in its dealings with Sri Lanka.

Senior Sri Lankan officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks between governments, said Tuesday that the Chinese were “unrelenting in their insistence” that the ship dock. The Yuan Wang 5 was originally scheduled to arrive on Aug. 11 but was delayed while Sri Lankan officials negotiated with the various governments.

The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Sri Lanka had “engaged in extensive consultations at a high level through diplomatic channels with all parties concerned” before granting final clearance.

Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to Russia, said Sri Lanka could expect an angry reaction from the Indian government, which has long suspected that the Hambantota port could eventually be used by China for civilian and military purposes.

The arrival of a Chinese military vessel “cannot escape a response from the other superpower in the region,” he said. “There will be a response from India, which can be going back on the economic assistance given to Sri Lanka, or something more assertive.”

Shih reported from New Delhi.