Chinese military survey ship docks at Sri Lanka port

REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
A group of Sri Lankan visitors at the new deep water shipping port watch Chinese dredging ships work in Hambantota, 240km (149 miles) southeast of Colombo, March 24, 2010.

COLOMBO (Reuters) – The Chinese survey vessel Yuan Wang 5 docked on Tuesday at Sri Lanka’s Chinese-built port of Hambantota, a port official said, a move likely to stoke concern in neighboring India about the growing influence of its bigger and more powerful rival.

The movements of the ship have fueled contention between India and China, two of Sri Lanka’s biggest allies in its current economic crisis, as India fears China could use the port, near the main Asia-Europe shipping route, as a military base.

“The vessel will be berthed for three days,” the official, who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Reuters from the southern port.

“The purpose of staying at the port is to stock up on fuel, food and other essentials.”

Hours after the ship docked, a Sri Lankan cabinet spokesman said the island nation was working to ensure there was no friction between friendly countries.

“Even before this, there have been ships from the United States, India and other countries coming to Sri Lanka,” Media Minister Bandula Gunawardana told reporters.

“We have allowed these ships to come. In the same way, we have allowed the Chinese ship to dock.”

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 the Yuan Wang ships are operated by the Strategic Support Force of the People’s Liberation Army.

On Saturday, Sri Lanka said it had agreed the vessel could dock at Hambantota, despite security concerns raised by India and the United States.

India has rejected claims that it has put pressure on Sri Lanka to turn the vessel away.