Trapped under huge Chinese debt, Sri Lanka now sees PLA surveillance vessel at its port

A Chinese surveillance ship, Shi Yan 6 docked at the island nation’s Colombo Port on October 25, just a week after Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to Beijing to attend the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.

There is a huge concern among strategic thinkers of the region as Shi Yan 6 is slated to conduct surveys off the Island nation’s waters for the next 17 days. However, Associated Press quoted Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Kapila Fonseka as saying that the vessel has been given permission to dock for replenishment at the Colombo Port from October 25 until October 28.

On September 23, Shi Yan 6 entered the Indian Ocean via the Malacca Straits and was seen in Singapore on September 14 after leaving Guangzhou on September 10.

CGTN calls Shi Yan 6 as a “scientific research vessel” with a crew of 60 on board it. The state-backed Chinese broadcaster said it has been deployed to study the “current system in the local topographic evolution and its relationship with seabed sediments and geology.”

But there is more to this than meets the eye. Shi Yan 6, which has been described by South China Morning Post as a 90-metre-long vessel, has been deployed to experiment on the sea bed to see future submarine operations of People’s Liberation Army-Navy.

In August, Sri Lanka had announced that the Chinese research vessel is scheduled to arrive in October for marine research activities in collaboration with the island nation’s National Aquatic Resource Research and Development Agency (NARA).

Several countries, including the US in September expressed their concern to Sri Lanka about the scheduled visit of the Chinese research vessel to the island nation. US Under Secretary Victoria Nuland, who met Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session at the end of September had raised concerns on the forthcoming visit of the Chinese vessel Shi Yan 6 to the Colombo Port.

In August 2022, Chinese Navy’s Yuan Wang 5, known for its surveillance capabilities arrived at Hambantota Port—a deep sea port which was given by Sri Lanka to the Chinese company that built it on a 99-year lease after Colombo was unable to service a $1.4 billion loan taken for the project.

The Yuan Wang 5, one of China’s latest generation space-tracking ships, used to monitor satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, remained at Hambantota Port from August 16 to August 22. Following a hue and cry in the international media over the Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship, Sri Lanka asked China to postpone the arrival of the advanced surveillance ship, but it later made a U-turn and allowed the ship to dock at Hambantota Port.

Burdened under huge Chinese loans, Sri Lanka can hardly afford to say no to China; it has always tried to keep Beijing in good humour. Before the Yuan Wang 5 row, Sri Lanka had given permission to a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to dock at one of its ports in 2014.

Over the past five years, Chinese vessels including warships, ballistic missile trackers, survey and research vessels have been active in the Indian Ocean Region. As per a report, the total number of Chinese vessels entering the IOR were 29 in 2019, grew to 39 in 2020, then 45 in 2021 and 43 in 2022. This year, till October 25, 29 Chinese ships have been recorded in the region.

Analysts say China uses loans heaped on Sri Lanka to make Colombo yield to its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. Last year, the island nation defaulted on its $46 billion external debt and fell into an unprecedented economic crisis, partly due to Chinese loans which were used to build white elephant infrastructure projects between 2005 and 2015.

Sri Lanka officially owes 10% of its total external debts over $50 billion to China. But the island country’s commercial borrowings from China’s commercial banks are not part of Colombo’s official statistics. As per Sri Lankan think tank, the Advocata Institute, the island nation owes $119 million to the China Development BankCorporation, $232 million to the China Development Bank and $232 million to the Export-Import Bank of China. Beijing approval is considered very crucial for any effort by the island nation to restructure its debt burden. In this situation, Sri Lanka finds no option but to keep China happy. However, in this process, it is losing its trust and reliability factor with neighbours in the region.

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