Chinese Tracking Ship Raises Controversy in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port

Chinese ship “Yuan Wang 2”.

Chinese ship “Yuan Wang 2”.

Sri Lanka has almost no real choice except to say ‘yes’ if a Chinese ship of whatever nefarious credentials wants to dock in Hambantota and if that is the wish of the Chinese state.

When the Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese third-generation tracking ship, entered the Port of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka in September 2022, its presence intensified concern about Chinese intentions in the region. Indeed, it sparked what the Hong Kong-based, English-language newspaper South China Morning Post called a “diplomatic scuffle” with India that may be a microcosm of a broader power struggle in the Bay of Bengal. While Chinese media described the vessel as a “scientific research vessel” and merely part of “very normal exchanges between the two countries that enjoy a longstanding friendship,” Indian media was not convinced. According to the Indian English-language news magazine India Today, there are numerous reasons India should be concerned about the Yuan Wang 5’s port visit. One cause of the concern, according to the newspaper, is that China uses the vessel to track rocket and spacecraft launches for the country’s space program and moon exploration missions. Second, the Yuan Wang 5’s state-of-the-art technology also makes it effective at keeping tabs on many of India’s strategic facilities, such as key ports, military bases, nuclear bases, and space launch center.

For its part, Sri Lanka is caught in the middle of the row between the countries. While Sri Lanka has strong bilateral relations with India, its ties to China have grown over recent years.  As prominent north Indian daily The Tribune pointed out, China has helped to fund many projects in Sri Lanka, including the Hambantota harbor.  As a result, China has “complete control of the Hambantota harbor as Lanka leased it to China Merchant Ports Holdings Company Limited for 99 years in 2017.”


Ling Xin, “Why Did Chinese Ship Yuan Wang 5 Spark a Diplomatic Scuffle?” South Chinese Morning Post (Hong Kong Chinese daily, once considered independent but now suspect of promoting China soft power abroad), 20 August 2022.

The vessel tracks rocket and spacecraft launches for China’s manned space programme and moon exploration missions. But some have called it a “spy ship”, which has led to the current controversy.

Yuan Wang 5 is a large tracking ship China uses to monitor and control rockets, satellites and test missiles while they are over the ocean and beyond the range of ground stations.

Built in 2007, Yuan Wang 5 has been regularly deployed by its operator – China Satellite Maritime Tracking and Control Department – to the Centra Pacific and the Indian Ocean to support satellite launches… Yuan Wang 5 has been heavily involved in China’s manned space programme, moon and Mars exploration as well as the construction of the Beidou navigation satellite system.

“China’s Research Vessel Yuan Wang 5 Docks at Sri Lankan Port, Dispels India’s Alienation of Ties,” Global Times (Daily tabloid newspaper falling under Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily), 16 August 2022.

“The scientific research vessel successfully and smoothly docked at Hambantota Port. This is very normal exchanges between the two countries that enjoy a longstanding friendship,” said Ambassador Qi in an interview after the welcoming ceremony…

Wang (Wenbin) stressed that Yuan Wang 5’s scientific research activities are in accordance with international law and common practice and should not be interfered with by third parties.

“Why Docking of Chinese Spy Vessel Yuan Wang 5 at Sri Lanka Port is Dangerous for India,” India Today (Weekly Indian English-language news magazine), 16 August 2022.

Here are the reasons why India is concerned about the presence of the Chinese vessel near its southern tip.

– The vessel has state-of-the-art technology, making it one of the newest generations of tracking ships in the Chinese Navy. It can be used for transoceanic aerospace observation using satellite pictures.

– Known for its excellent record in space and satellite tracking, it has been used for many months now. It can track the launch of satellites, rocket launchers, and also intercontinental ballistic missiles.

– It can also send information to tracking stations in Beijing or other parts of China.

– It has the capability and the range to keep tabs on strategic military establishments, including nuclear ones, in the peninsular region.

– Using this vessel, China can collect information about India’s military bases in the peninsula, the navy, and nuclear submarine bases in South India, including Kalpakkam and Kudankulam.

– Ports in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra on China’s snooping radar will also be within the radar of this Chinese vessel.

– Isro’s launch centre in Chandipur can also be snooped upon.

Sasanka Perera, “Yuan Wang Has Maritime Lessons for India,” The Tribune (prominent north Indian daily with a focus that includes defense issues), 5 September 2022. However, in today’s circumstances, Sri Lankan reality is not the ideal referred to above. Sri Lanka is seriously in debt to China monetarily due to numerous white elephant projects undertaken with Chinese loans, including the Hambantota harbour itself, along with other loans with no significant returns. On the other hand, the Chinese have complete control of the Hambantota harbour as Lanka leased it to China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited for 99 years in 2017. In this overall context, Sri Lanka has almost no real choice except to say ‘yes’ if a Chinese ship of whatever nefarious credentials wants to dock in Hambantota and if that is the wish of the Chinese state. That is exactly what happened with Yuan Wang 5.

Image Information:

Image: Chinese ship “Yuan Wang 2”
Source: YuanWang2c – Yuan Wang-class tracking ship – Wikipedia
Attribution: Gadfium, Public Domain