ECONOMYNEXT – The participation of a group of independent members of Sri Lanka’s parliament at a ceremony marking the controversial arrival of a Chinese tracking vessel at the Hambantota Port has been criticised by a prominent government MP.
The Yuan Wang 5 vessel, at the centre of an apparent geopolitical standoff between India, Sri Lanka and China, was finally docked at the Chinese-built Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka’s deep south Tuesday August 16 morning after much toing and froing in the midst of raging controversy about its implications for the region. This was after the governments of India and the United States had failed to provide “concrete reasons” for why they opposed the boat’s arrival.
Among the guests invited to a welcome ceremony held Tuesday morning for the vessel and its Chinese were MPs Wimal Weerawansa and Vasudewa Nanayakkara, both formerly staunch supporters of ex President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who later walked out of his government as Sri Lanka’s economy began to collapse.
Both MPs, along with their former cabinet colleague Udaya Gammanpila, are widely seen as critical of the West and have aired views supportive of Russia and China.
Both Weerawansa and Nanayakkara spoke at the event in language that was unambiguously critical of the developments that led to the controversy around Yuan Wang 5.
Government MP and former head of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Dr Charitha Herath took to Twitter Tuesday afternoon to express his displeasure at his erstwhile colleagues in the Rajapaksa cabinet.
The MPs’ political engagement “in a highly sensitive issue such as this” was “totally unnecessary”, Herath tweeted.
1. I respect the rights of others to engage in any political actions. However, my personal feeling here is that it's a "totally unnecessary" intervention. I'm not referring to ‘the arrival of the ship or how that was perceived by some countries’. pic.twitter.com/wWlqHydRHC
— Charitha Herath, (PhD) (@charith9) August 16, 2022
Speaking at the event, MP Weerawansa, who heads the National Freedom Front (NFF), said the Indian ocean region must remain a region of peace.
“Though this land is Sri Lanka, it is the sky and this ocean that connects us to the world. There is part of that sky and ocean that belongs to us and is our sovereign right.
“We are of the firm position that the indian ocean region must be a region of peace. It cannot be a region of conflict, nor a region of enemy camps. Whether we’re economically strong or weak, we must not waver from that position,” he said.
“The leaders of our [independent parties] were always of the view that the ship – which some called a spy ship but we call a communications and technology vessel – should be permitted to dock at the Hambantota Port,” the MP added.
MP Nanayakkara, who heads the Democratic Left Front, said controversy around the ship was due to “American machinations”.
“The presence of Yuan Wang 5 is a symbol of independence and sovereign power of Sri Lanka. A controversy was unnecessarily raised about the arrival of Yuan Wang 5 and it was also a machination of western powers headed by the US.
“We hope the long-lasting friendship [of China and Sri Lanka] cannot be torpedoed by any mechanisms of imperialism,” he said.
Former Minister of Public Security Rear Admiral (rtd) Sarath Weerasekara, a ruling party MP who is still with the government now under President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the support of China is important for the island to recover from its economic crisis.
“We request our long-standing friend China to assist us in restructuring our debt and settle an IMF bailout and provide us with some bridging finance,” he said.
Meanwhile, cabinet spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardena maintained that Sri Lanka has remained neutral in its stance on the matter of Yuan Wang 5 true to Sri Lanka’s “non aligned” foreign policy.
“Sri Lanka has remained a neutral country and we will remain so with all. The ship was delayed due to issues raised by India,” he said speaking at the weekly cabinet press briefing in Colombo Tuesday morning.
“We have allowed the Chinese government the same facilities we provide anyone else. We follow a neutral path and we treat everyone equally be it India, Pakistan or even America.
“Each country is important to us. They have helped us in the past and the foreign ministry has taken the necessary measures to maintain the friendship with all nations,” he said.
Gunawardena recalled that Sri Lanka had previously allowed warships from various countries to dock at its ports as long their arrival did not affect any third party or created any other issue.
“We had warships from the US, the UK and many other countries,” he said.
Speaking at the ceremony in Hambantota, Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong said the port call of Hambantota Port was a success despite some “rough weather” in the Indian Ocean. It was unclear whether he was making a thinly veiled reference to concerns raised by India and the US over the ship’s arrival.
“It manifests not only your courage, tenacity but als deep rooted friendship between our two countries,” he said.
Yuan Wang 5, a third-generation satellite tracking vessel, will be anchored at the Hambantota Port for seven days from August 16 to 22 for replenishment purposes.
Sri Lankan authorities had first given clearance to Yuan Wang 5 on July 12 to make a port call at the Hambantota Port from August 11 to 17.
However, after concerns over its anticipated arrival were raised by the US and India, Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry requested China to defer the port call until “further consultations”.
Much diplomatic back and forth ensued, with the tracking vessel becoming a subject of some controversy both in Sri Lanka and abroad, prompting President Ranil Wickremesinghe to personally look into the matter according to at least one report by a major newspaper.
The foreign ministry eventually cleared the vessel for docking in Hambantoa where the ship will be anchored till August 22.
The ship arrived in Sri Lanka a day after India celebrated its 75th Independence Day, in commemoration which the island nation’s Air Force was donated a surveillance aircraft.