A Chinese survey ship whose visit to Sri Lanka was delayed following security concerns in India arrived in the island nation on Tuesday after Colombo gave it approval to dock at the southern port of Hambantota.
The controversy over the visit underscores the fierce competition between New Delhi and Beijing over influence in the strategic country amid India's concerns about the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean.
The Yuan Wang 5 is described as a research and survey vessel according to analytics website MarineTraffic. But security analysts say that the ship is also packed with space and satellite tracking electronics that can monitor rocket and missile launches.
Officials in Sri Lanka said the Chinese ship has been given clearance for replenishment purposes. They said that the two sides had agreed it would keep its identification systems on and would not carry out any research activities while in Sri Lankan waters.
At a ceremony to welcome the ship, China's ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, said the two countries enjoy outstanding friendship and that the visit of Yuan Wang 5 was part of "normal exchanges between the two countries."
The ship was originally due to dock on August 11 but Sri Lanka postponed the ship's visit last week, apparently due to Indian objections. That drew a sharp reaction from Beijing's foreign ministry, which said it was completely unjustified for "certain countries" to "pressure" Sri Lanka citing "so-called security concerns."
Days later, Colombo made a U-turn and granted permission to Yuan Wang 5 to dock. "It is Sri Lanka's intention to safeguard the legitimate interests of all countries in keeping with its international obligations," the foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
Indian officials have rejected claims that New Delhi put pressure on Sri Lanka to turn the vessel away, but reports said there were intense negotiations with Colombo as both India and the United States raised concerns about the ship's arrival.
Security analysts say India's apprehensions over the ship's docking in Sri Lanka stem from fears that the Hambantota port, where the ship has docked, will be used as a military base by Beijing. The port, which lies barely 500 kilometers from Indian shores, was built as part of Beijing's Belt and Road initiative and leased to a Chinese company in 2017 for 99 years after Colombo was unable to pay back its debt.
While India has long confronted China along their contested Himalayan borders, it has also been seeking to check Beijing's growing presence in the Indian Ocean, which New Delhi sees as its traditional sphere of influence.
It is pushing back by accelerating its naval engagement with neighboring countries. A day before the Chinese ship docked at the Hambantota port, India gifted a Dornier surveillance aircraft to Sri Lanka to bolster its maritime security.
"Induction of the aircraft is timely in view of the current challenges to Sri Lanka's maritime security," the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement.
For Sri Lanka, the tussle over the ship posed a diplomatic dilemma as it tried to balance ties with India and China, both of whose help it needs as it battles its worst-ever economic downturn.
A Sri Lankan cabinet spokesman, Bandula Gunawardana told reporters on Tuesday that ships from countries like the United States and India had come to the country earlier. "We have allowed these ships to come. In the same way we have allowed the Chinese ship to come," he said.
India has given Sri Lanka nearly $4 billion in loans and credit lines to help it import much-needed food and fuel in recent months. But the small country, which owes more than 10% of its debt to China, also needs an agreement with Beijing to restructure its loan before it can seal a bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund.