Colombo fails to protect India’s security interest as Chinese military ships dock in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka claimed it would not hurt the neighbour India’s security interest even as it allows a Chinese ship to dock at the Hambantota port, turning a blind eye to New Delhi’s concerns that such ships can engage in surveillance activities such as underwater surface mapping, spying submarine routes, and even sabotaging critical infrastructure. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe comment about painting Chinese ships as any regular ships from other countries does not conform with India’s security concerns.[1]

Shi Yan 6, which China identified it as a research vessel, has arrived in Sri Lanka. While China claimed Shi Yan 6 was involved in geophysical scientific research, India suspects it has military functions. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Sabry acknowledged the opposition from New Delhi to the Chinese “military” ships docking close to the Indian border.[2] Yet, Colombo allowed it to dock at its port. Amid China’s growing military footprints in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the clashes on the Himalayan border, India finds Chinese maritime excursions worrisome and detrimental to its strategic interests.

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, a senior fellow at Washington DC-based think tank The Millennium Project, said Shi Yan 6 can be used for strategic naval planning, especially, relating to submarine warfare. Abeyagoonasekera said the ship can access critical data regarding seabed resources in the Indian Ocean, which can help China in the exploration of minerals and energy resources as well as in enhancing submarine warfare capabilities.[3]

Thus, the Chinese activities in Sri Lanka, which is in close proximity to India, have become subject to scrutiny by New Delhi. India had raised objection when another Chinese vessel named Yuan Wang 5 was docked at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port last year.[4] India had characterised it as a ballistic-missiles-laced, satellite-tracking and seabed-mapping military vessel.[5] Arindam Bagchi, the spokesman for India’s External Affairs Ministry, had said “The government carefully monitors any development having a bearing on India’s security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them.”[6]

There are several evident examples from the past, which explain how civilian ships, planes, and vehicles were used by different countries for military purposes.[7] Chinese shipping cranes too have been suspected to be engaged in spying activities.[8] Recently, the US saw a Chinese balloon flying over the country in what was considered to be a spying exercise.[9][10] All this justifies India’s concerns about China using Sri Lankan ports for activities that are inimical to the former’s interests and security.

Sri Lankan people had in 2017 held protests against giving up their land for the Hambantota port fearing their country would become a “Chinese colony”.  Local politician DV Chanaka had said “When you give away such a vast area of land, you can’t stop the area becoming a Chinese colony.”[11] Yet, ignoring people’s pleas, the Sri Lankan government went ahead with the deal and ended up losing a part of its territory to China. Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister then, blamed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for the deal, calling him Beijing-friendly.[12]

While it was said that the Chinese investment in the Hambantota port was a purely economic one, there are reports that China may use it for military purposes.[13] Lyle Goldstein, a China expert at Washington DC-based research institute Defense Priorities, said “There has been over a decade of speculation about whether Beijing would seek to make its port facility at Hambantota into a naval base,” he said.[14] According to the US-based research lab AidData, China has invested USD 2.9 billion in the Hambantota port as it considers Sri Lanka its most favourable naval base in the IOR.[15]  Former Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka said “China’s purpose is to make sure its military ships have easy access to the Sri Lankan port. As long as this goal is met, it has no need to actually build a military base.”[16][17] China’s strong presence in the IOR, especially, with a naval base in Sri Lanka, increases the challenge to India’s  strategic interests. In such a scenario, Sri Lanka’s decision to allow Chinese vessels will certainly invoke a sharp reaction from India.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMYBGtvP3yk

[2] https://island.lk/govt-finally-allows-chinese-ship-visit/

[3] https://thediplomat.com/2023/11/what-swirls-beneath-research-activity-of-chinese-ships-in-the-indian-ocean/

[4] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-research-ship-docks-sri-lanka-india-concerns-rcna43258

[5] https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/pla-spy-ship-yuan-wang-5-mapping-indian-ocean-for-chinese-submarine-operations-101671003213852.html

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/16/world/asia/sri-lanka-chinese-ship-india.html

[7] https://www.navylookout.com/russian-spy-ships-mapping-undersea-infrastructure-in-the-north-sea/

[8] https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/09/20/china-shipping-maritime-logistics-lanes-trade-ports-security-espionage-intelligence/

[9] https://www.lawfaremedia.org/article/how-chinas-spies-fooled-america-wanted-be-fooled

[10] https://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/news/news/2023/04/21/a_trawler_suspected_of_espionage_has_had_a_stopover/

[11] https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2017/1/7/protest-over-hambantota-port-deal-turns-violent

[12] https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2017/1/7/protest-over-hambantota-port-deal-turns-violent

[13] https://www.dailymirror.lk/international/Hambantota-Port-as-Chinas-Next-Naval-Base-Implications-Regional-Dynamics/107-264811

[14] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/16/world/asia/sri-lanka-chinese-ship-india.html

[15] https://docs.aiddata.org/reports/harboring-global-ambitions/Harboring_Global_Ambitions.html

[16] https://www.voanews.com/a/china-using-sri-lanka-s-indebtedness-to-show-military-muscle-/6684873.html

[17] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-07-28/china-s-top-option-for-next-naval-base-is-sri-lanka-report-says

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