Sri Lanka Suspends Chinese Research Vessel Visits

Map of South Asia, India featured.

“In the immediate (time frame), it means that China’s third ‘research/spy vessel’ Xiang Yang Hong 3 is not welcome in the first week of the New Year.”

India has been wary of Chinese research vessels docking in Sri Lankan ports and has pushed Sri Lanka to prevent these port calls. China claims the vessels are only for scientific purposes, but the Chinese ships that have docked in Sri Lanka are known to have dual scientific and intelligence-gathering purposes.[i] The accompanying excerpted articles report on Sri Lanka’s recent decision for a one-year moratorium on foreign research vessels docking in the country’s ports beginning 1 January 2024, and demonstrate how Sri Lanka continues to be a focal point in tensions between India and China.

The first excerpted article from India’s independent think tank Observer Research Foundation states that Sri Lanka’s moratorium is an attempt to appease India by not allowing Chinese ships to carry out intelligence gathering activities so close to India under the guise of scientific research. While Sri Lanka has become more economically tied with China over the past several years, it still relies on India as an economic and political partner. Sri Lanka’s ties with India, while strained at times, go back further than its ties with China. An immediate impact of the moratorium resulted in the Chinese ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 being prohibited from docking in Sri Lanka in early January. The author mentions that China sought permission from both Sri Lanka and the Maldives to dock the Xiang Yang Hong 3 late last year. The second excerpted article from India’s English-language daily Deccan Herald reports that in light of the Sri Lankan moratorium, the Maldives is allowing the Xiang Yang Hong 3 docking rights. The purpose of the Chinese visit is for the rotation of personnel and replenishment for the ship, and not for research, according to the article. Nevertheless, the decision by the Maldives enables China a port visit close to India. The article also mentions that there will likely be some political fallout between India and the Maldives over this authorization, though it is unclear how this will play out. Overall, Sri Lanka’s one year moratorium on foreign ships reflects India’s influence in Sri Lanka. However, the docking of the Xiang Yang Hong 3 in the Maldives likewise demonstrates that India’s ability to influence only extends so far, allowing China to project power and maintain a presence near India.


N. Sathiya Moorthy, “Decoding Sri Lanka’s moratorium on foreign research vessels,” Observer Research Foundation (independent think-tank in India), 8 January 2024.

On the face of it, the recent Sri Lankan government’s decision to ‘declare a pause’ on foreign research vessels for one year beginning 1 January 2024 is an attempt to buy peace with the large-hearted Indian neighbour, and also the United States…

In the immediate, it means that China’s third ‘research/spy vessel’ Xiang Yang Hong 3 is not welcome in the first week of the New Year…

“The arrival of these ships creates serious diplomatic tensions, and it (2024) is an election year,” Foreign Minister Ali Sabry said, by way of explanation. “Such ship visits can be highly disruptive for the region and Sri Lanka, because of the pressure the government may come under…” he added…

For instance, Shi Yan 6 was not the first Chinese research/survey ship, otherwise considered a ‘spy ship’, to visit Sri Lanka…A year earlier in 2022, Yuan Wang 5 had berthed at the Chinese-controlled Hambantota Port in the south, unlike Shi Yan 6, which docked at the capital Colombo…

In the case of the new vessel, Xiang Yang Hong 3, China had sought permission from both Sri Lanka and neighbouring Maldives, to dock it in these waters from 5 January to the end of May, a long five-month haul. As the intention was to map the ocean in these parts, the long stay should be a cause for concern for the larger Indian neighbour.

It should be equally so for the US, whose Diego Garcia military base is situated 700 km away…

Anirban Bhaumik, “India wary as Maldives allows China ‘research vessel’ to dock at port,” Deccan Herald (English-language daily newspaper in India), 23 January 2024.

…President Mohamed Muizzu’s government on Tuesday stated that it had decided to allow Chinese PLAN’s ‘research vessel’ Xiang Yang Hong 3 to dock at Malé, the main port of the Maldives. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the government of the Maldives stated that the decision to allow the ship to make the port call followed a diplomatic request from Beijing. It, however, claimed that Xiang Yang Hong 3 would dock at Malé only for the rotation of personnel and replenishment and would not conduct any research as long as it would remain in the territorial waters of the Maldives.New Delhi, however, is not convinced and, according to the sources, would soon convey its concerns to Malé through diplomatic channels. A source in New Delhi told DH that India would use its assets to keep watch on the Xiang Yang Hong 3 during its port call in the Maldives…


[i] For background on India pressuring Sri Lanka to prevent Chinese vessels docking in Sri Lankan ports, see: Matthew Stein “India Works To Maintain Sri Lankan Foothold Amid Growing China Presence,” OE Watch, 10-2022.

Image Information:

Image: Map of South Asia, India featured.
Attribution: Public domain

India Responds to Chinese and Pakistani Naval Activities in Sri Lanka

India Navy continuity drill.

India Navy continuity drill.

“India’s move to help Sri Lanka enhance its maritime surveillance capabilities appears to be a subtle move by it to reassert its role as a net security provider for the Indian Ocean…”

The independent Indian daily newspaper Deccan Herald recently published an article, the first excerpted below, regarding India’s response to Chinese and Pakistani naval operations at Sri Lankan ports. According to the article, India is concerned that it risks losing its preeminent position as the primary security provider for Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean region at large. The article also emphasizes the importance of the timing of India’s deal to supply Sri Lanka with Dornier 228 maritime aircraft as a means of reasserting its geopolitical standing in the region. The provision of the Dornier 228 to Sri Lanka occurred shortly after Sri Lanka granted permission to the Strategic Support Force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which tracks satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles, to visit Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port. In addition, Sri Lanka allowed the Pakistani Navy frigate PNS Taimur to refuel at Colombo Port when returning home from naval exercises in Cambodia and Malaysia. In a recent statement published by the Chinese Communist Party People’s Daily, as shown in the second article, a China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson noted that Chinese support to port infrastructure in Sri Lanka and other developing nations is simply a sign of Chinese cooperation between nations, and therefore India’s concerns are unwarranted. In the third excerpted article, from the Indian publication The Hindu, the author argues that the Dornier 228 will revamp Sri Lanka’s capabilities to contribute more to the security of the Indian Ocean region, which, in turn, supports India’s regional interests. At the same time, the new capabilities will reaffirm Sri Lanka’s role as a member of the Colombo Security Conclave, whose other three members are India, the Maldives and Mauritius. The article nevertheless acknowledged that India’s increased maritime security interest in Sri Lanka is being driven by its apprehension over Sri Lanka’s cooperation with China in maritime naval affairs.


“Sri Lanka allows Pakistani warship, Chinese recon vessel to dock in its ports, to get maritime patrol aircraft from India,” (independent daily newspaper targeting youth readership), 14 August 2022.

Even as China’s recon ship ‘Yuan Wang 5’ is back on course towards the Hambantota Port of Sri Lanka, India is set to gift the island nation a Dornier 228 maritime patrol aircraft soon, subtly reasserting its role as the net security provider to the island…. New Delhi will replace the used aircraft with a newly-built one two years later and will then discuss with Colombo the modalities for handing over another aircraft to the Sri Lankan Navy or the Coast Guard.

India’s move to help Sri Lanka enhance its maritime surveillance capabilities appears to be a subtle move by it to reassert its role as a net security provider for the Indian Ocean, notwithstanding increasing forays by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Beijing had on August 8 dismissed New Delhi’s security concerns as “senseless” and tacitly asked it to desist from “disturbing normal exchanges and cooperation” between China and Sri Lanka…. India also pointed out that it was its sovereign right to express its security concerns over the arrival of China’s ship with military capabilities in Sri Lanka.

India’s move to help Sri Lanka enhance its maritime surveillance capabilities appears to be a subtle move by it to reassert its role as a net security provider for the Indian Ocean, notwithstanding increasing forays by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy and Pakistani Navy in the region.

“毛宁:中国将为发展中国家做更多实事、好事 (Mao Ning: China will do more practical and good deeds for developing countries),” (largest Chinese newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party), 8 October 2022.

The infrastructure of these countries includes ports, bridges, and power stations, in addition to mosques, parliament buildings, stadiums, and libraries. They are all beautiful business items made in China, and they are also golden images of China’s cooperation with developing countries.

“India hands over Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft to Sri Lanka Navy,” (widely circulated Indian daily newspaper), 15 August 2022.

Sri Lanka Air Force announced that the Indian Air force was gifting it a Dornier 228 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, while noting another aircraft would be donated within two years…. Sri Lanka is a member of the ‘Colombo Security Conclave’ that began as a trilateral initiate involving India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and later included Mauritius, for maritime cooperation in the region.

Image Information:

Image: India Navy continuity drill
Attribution: www.indiannavy.nic, CC BY 2.0

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