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Visit Of Chinese Survey Vessel: Another Foreign Policy Test In The Making For Sri Lanka?

Visit Of Chinese Survey Vessel

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy stance is likely to be tested again next month with the planned arrival of another Chinese research vessel Shi Yan 6, with many eyes focusing on how Colombo will manage the visit and proposed survey. The Sunday Morning learns that discussions have been held and that a final decision on granting permission to the 2020-built Shi Yan 6 vessel is likely to be taken by the end of this month.

This, almost a year after the controversial visit of the Chinese satellite tracking vessel Yuan Wang 5 to the Hambantota International Port (August 2022), which drew strong criticism from regional and extra regional giants.

Last week, The Sunday Morning wrote about delays in publishing and enforcing the long-awaited Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which had been drafted to grant approval for foreign warships, aircraft and research vessels to traverse Sri Lankan waters, airspace, and to call at local ports. The SOP, which was given approval by the Cabinet of Ministers last month (July), is still being finalised. When contacted by The Sunday Morning, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said that the procedural and administrative aspects of the SOP were being finalised and that the SOP would be published on the ministry website “soon”.

It has been observed that only visits by Chinese vessels to Sri Lanka trigger a flurry of activity in diplomatic quarters and in the foreign press, with the recent visit by a French Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) vessel to Colombo for replenishment going virtually unnoticed.

The review of the existing (2016) SOP last year was a result of the mismanagement of the Yuan Wang 5 episode, which left the government red-faced about how best to handle sensitive port calls and research requests, especially considering neighbouring India and the U.S., whose assistance was at the time vital to secure a bailout.

The Yuan Wang 5’s arrival coincided with the launch of both Indian and Chinese satellite constellations and the Chinese launch of a module to the space station. It also came at a time when Sri Lanka was vulnerable, having declared bankruptcy, and was seeking financial assistance and debt restructuring from several nations.

Visit Being Considered, Not Yet Approved

Although news reports indicated that the University of Ruhuna had entered into an agreement with Shi Yan 6 for a joint research survey, efforts by The Sunday Morning to contact the university authorities to confirm the matter and obtain details failed.

According to reports, the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) has indicated that the vessel’s arrival is linked to an agreement reached with the Ruhuna University. It is learnt that NARA officials have requested to be onboard the vessel during the proposed survey in order to obtain water samples for its own research.

When contacted, a spokesperson for the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) told The Sunday Morning that the SLN had submitted its recommendation regarding the request for approval for the Chinese vessel to the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not available for comment on the status of the research vessel’s visit and approval given to it.

However, a senior defence official close to the matter told The Sunday Morning on terms of anonymity that no approval had been given to the Shi Yan 6 as of yesterday (19), with the decision to be taken by a special committee made up of stakeholders later this month. Shi Yan 6 is expected to arrive in Sri Lankan waters by the last week of October. However, the dates of port call and survey are yet to be finalised, it is learnt. “No approval has been given. It is still being considered. The matter will likely be decided by a special committee made up of key ministerial stakeholders. No timelines have been agreed to as of yet. This matter may also be discussed at the next National Security Council (NSC),” the official said.

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It is also learnt that the Chinese embassy in Colombo had, via a diplomatic note, submitted the request for the Shi Yan 6 in April of this year, seeking permission to conduct an underwater and hydrographic survey from October 26 to November 10.

Permission for the Shi Yan 6 may well be given under the new ship visit SOP which, The Sunday Morning reported, will come into effect early next month. As such, the Chinese research vessel may be the first to face the complex regulatory process which Sri Lanka plans to enact through the new SOP.

Enter The ‘Experiment 6’ Dragon

Shí Yan 6, International Maritime Organisation registration – IMO:9904247, is a 90-metre-long, 3,999-tonne geophysical and seismic survey ship launched in 2020 and is believed to call Guangzhou its home port. Shi Yan, meaning experiment in Chinese, has been described as “one of the most advanced medium-sized research ships of China”. It is believed that the Shi Yan 6 is linked to the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

China’s action in the disputed South China Sea and its refusal to adhere to international law and conflict resolution make Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean a significant concern to other nations.

What Will The Data Be Used For?

Concerns about Chinese survey vessels operating and surveying in the Indian Ocean fall into two main categories. Firstly, there is concern about the Chinese having access to vital information about seabed resources which dot the Indian Ocean region. This concern comes in the backdrop of super power competition for mineral and energy resources. The increasing geopolitical tensions with China and the race to keep the technological edge push the U.S., Europe, India, Japan, and China to compete for key mineral resources.

The second concern is about the collection of ocean and seabed data, which can be collected by vessels like Shi Yan 6 and may be used in the future for planning naval strategies, particularly for submarine warfare. This also comes in the background of China’s stance on Taiwan and countermoves by the Indo-U.S.-Japan-Australia bloc termed the ‘Quad’. Naval planners understand that China will likely deploy naval assets, particularly submarines, in the Indian Ocean, in the event of a future regional conflict.

A former Indian naval officer The Sunday Morning spoke to regarding New Delhi’s concerns about the undersea survey said on terms of anonymity: “We understand that Sri Lanka has a sovereign right to allow port visits and research by such ships. However, our concern is what will that data be used for? That is not clear. There has been no explanation for the need for such data. Who will have access to it? These are some of the issues which I think need to be addressed.”

The former senior Indian navy officer added that hydrographic and seabed information played a pivotal role in undersea warfare, and as such, with China making military inroads to the Indian Ocean region, such survey activity was viewed with greater concern. “I think India has clearly told Sri Lanka and its President their concerns. Also, why Sri Lanka continues to allow such activities, when their neighbour is concerned about such activity, and will remain so, is unsettling,” he added.

(By arrangement with ‘The Morning’)