ince last month, the Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese satellite-tracking vessel, has been slowly sailing from Chinese waters to the Hambantota Port on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Just months ago, when Sri Lanka was still under the leadership of the Rajapaksas, a political family that had ruled the Sri Lankan ethnocracy for almost two decades, allowing the 730-foot-long Chinese naval ship into port would not have generated as much attention. However, with the small island state suffering its worst economic crisis on record, its indebtedness to Beijing an economic albatross around its neck, and geopolitical tensions between India and China increasing, the ship’s arrival generated plenty of alarm.
Both the Indian and U.S. governments had strongly pressured Colombo to revoke Chinese access to the port, which infuriated the Chinese. At first, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry bowed to that pressure, stating that it “wished to reaffirm the enduring friendship and excellent relations between Sri Lanka and China.” India had worried that the vessel had the capability of spying on Indian military establishments in the area.
But Colombo quickly reversed course and allowed the Chinese vessel to dock for “replenishment” purposes starting on August 16, reigniting concerns over Chinese influence over Sri Lanka. The reversal is a blow to India and raises security concerns and new questions about trust in bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who first gained power in 2004 and concluded a long civil war by defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), first began courting Beijing as a way of generating domestic legitimacy. A military relationship began slightly earlier, with Chinese weapons playing a hand in the LTTE’s defeat. Chinese economic assistance to Sri Lanka, mostly through loans brokered by Chinese banks, increased exponentially. Between 2005 and 2012, China provided more than $4.7 billion in economic assistance to Sri Lanka, with 98 percent of that coming in the form of loans.