Riled by Sri Lanka's request to defer the planned docking of a high-tech Chinese research vessel at the strategic Hambantota Port, China on Monday took a dig at India, saying it was "senseless to pressure" Colombo by citing the issue of security concerns.
According to reports from Colombo, Sri Lanka has asked Beijing to defer the arrival of the Chinese space and satellite tracking research vessel Yuan Wang 5 which was scheduled to dock at the Hambantota Port from August 11 to 17 due to security concerns expressed by India.
Responding to the reports, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a media briefing that Beijing has taken note of the reports and asserted that ”the cooperation between China and Sri Lanka is independently chosen by the two countries and meets common interests. It does not target any third party”.
It is ”senseless to pressure Sri Lanka” by citing the issue of security concerns, he said, in reference to the reports that Sri Lanka's move was attributed to concerns expressed by India.
"Sri Lanka is a sovereign State. It can develop relations with other countries in the light of its own development interests," he said.
”China urges relevant parties to see China's scientific explorations in a reasonable and sensible way and stop disturbing the normal exchange between China and Sri Lanka,” Wang said.
Sri Lanka is a transport hub in the Indian Ocean. Many scientific exploration ships including those from China have stopped at the port of Sri Lanka for resupplies, he said. ”China has always exercised the freedom of navigation in the high seas and fully respects the jurisdiction of coastal states for the scientific exploration activities within their waters," he said.
According to media reports, India informed Sri Lanka that the docking of the high-tech Chinese research vessel could pose a threat to its national security.
Sri Lanka received strong messages of protests from India as the ship was said to have the capability to track satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the reports said.
India has said it carefully monitors any development having a bearing on its security and economic interests.
"We are aware of reports of a proposed visit by this vessel to Hambantota in August," external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in New Delhi when asked about the reports of a proposed visit by the Chinese vessel.
"The government carefully monitors any development having a bearing on India's security and economic interests and takes all necessary measures to safeguard them," he said last month.
Reports from Colombo on Sunday said China's embassy in the country sought an urgent meeting with senior Sri Lankan authorities after Colombo sought deferment in the planned docking of the research vessel.
Some Sri Lankan news portals also reported that the country's President Ranil Wickremesinghe held a closed-door meeting with China's ambassador Qi Zhenhong after Colombo sought the deferment of the planned docking.
On July 12, amidst the political turmoil in Sri Lanka, the previous government approved the Chinese vessel's docking at the Hambantota port.
The Chinese vessel was expected to dock at the Sri Lankan port for "refuelling and replenishment" and to conduct satellite control and research tracking in the north-western part of the Indian Ocean region through August and September.
The southern deep-sea port of Hambantota is considered strategically important for its location. The port, located in the hometown of the Rajapaksa family, has been developed largely with Chinese loans.
The ties between India and Sri Lanka came under strain after Colombo gave permission to a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine to dock in one of its ports in 2014.
China is the main creditor of Sri Lanka with investment in infrastructure. Debt restructuring of Chinese loans would be key to the island's success in the ongoing talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
India, on the other hand, has been Sri Lanka's lifeline in the ongoing economic crisis.
India has been at the forefront of extending economic assistance of nearly USD 4 billion to Sri Lanka during the year as the island nation is grappling with the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
As the new Sri Lankan president looks at pulling the country out of its economic crisis, India has said that it will continue to assist the island nation and support its people in their quest for stability and prosperity.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena recently said Sri Lanka was looking forward to settling the issue of the vessel's visit with an "approach of friendship".
India's concerns have been focused on Hambantota port in particular. In 2017, Colombo leased the southern port to China Merchant Port Holdings for 99 years, after Sri Lanka was unable to keep its loan repayment commitments, fanning fears over the potential use of the port for military purposes.