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International relations

Sri Lanka asks China to defer military ship visit after India protests

Space-tracking vessel initially was approved to arrive this week

A naval officer stands in front of the Indian and Sri Lankan flags as an Indian coast guard ship visits the Colombo port in 2018.   © Reuters

COLOMBO (Reuters) -- Sri Lanka said on Monday it had asked China to defer the planned visit of a Chinese ship to the island country after initially approving its arrival this week, yielding to diplomatic pressure from neighbor India to keep the military vessel out.

The Yuan Wang 5 was due to arrive on Thursday at the Chinese-built and -leased Hambantota port in Sri Lanka's south for five days for replenishment. It is sailing in the east Indian Ocean, according to Refinitiv Eikon.

Foreign security analysts describe the Yuan Wang 5 as one of China's latest-generation space-tracking ships, used to monitor satellite, rocket and intercontinental ballistic missile launches. The Pentagon says Yuan Wang ships are operated by the Strategic Support Force of the People's Liberation Army.

New Delhi fears its bigger and more powerful rival China will use Hambantota as a military base in India's backyard. The $1.5 billion port is near the main shipping route from Asia to Europe.

Sri Lanka's Foreign Ministry said that on July 12 it had approved the ship's arrival for this month.

"Subsequently in light of the need for further consultations, the ministry has communicated to the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Colombo to defer the visit of the said vessel to the Hambantota port," the ministry said in a statement.

India said late last month it was monitoring the planned visit of the ship, adding that New Delhi would protect its security and economic interests. India also lodged a verbal protest with the Sri Lankan government.

Asked about the controversy over the ship, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular news briefing that China's relations with Sri Lanka were "not targeted at third parties."

Relations between India and China have been strained since armed clashes on their Himalayan border two years ago killed at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers.

Both China and India have tried to expand their influence in Sri Lanka, which is facing its worst economic crisis in its independent history, though India has provided more help to it this year than any other nation.

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