Step back from water’s edge

Source: The post is based on an article “Step back from water’s edge” published in the Indian Express on 10th August 2022.

Syllabus: GS 3 Internal and External Security

Relevance: Maritime Security

News: In recent days, there were reports that a Chinese “spy ship” known as Yuan Wang-5, was going to visit the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. This happened amidst India’s emergency economic assistance to Sri Lanka.

History of the PLA’s vessel visit to Indian waters

In 2014, a PLA Navy’s (PLAN) Type-039, a diesel submarine was docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

It was followed by a port call by a Type-091 nuclear-powered attack submarine on the Sri Lanka Port.

Why did Sri Lanka give permission to the Chinese vessel to enter its domestic port?

Sri Lanka has cordial diplomatic relations and economic dependence on China. Therefore, there could be no plausible reason for Sri Lanka to deny entry to Yuan Wang 5, especially into Hambantota on which China has a 99-year lease.

Apart from India and the IMF, Sri Lanka also needs Chinese help for its economic recovery in this crisis time.

Although the actual mission of Yuan Wang 5 is not known, it is also assumed that it was on a legitimate space-related assignment. For example, Further, China is active in space programs. It has planned 50 space launches for 2022, like a return of three Chinese astronauts to earth from an 11-year-old space station, the Tiangong-3 space station is under-construction, etc. For these, space activities, China needs survey/research ships in dispersed oceanic locations ranging from the mid-Pacific and south Indian Ocean to the coast of Africa, for control and tracking as well as rescue tasks

International laws for the passage of vessels in the sea waters

The 1982 UN Convention for Law of the Seas permits unfettered freedom of navigation on the high seas. Therefore, a foreign warship has a right to be in the Indian Ocean, likewise, a similar Indian vessel would be allowed in the South China Sea.

In the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), there exists the conditional right of “innocent passage” for all vessels, including warships.

During peacetime, UNCLOS mandates foreign vessels, especially warships, to have prior consent before entering foreign ports.

During wartime, the 1907 Hague Convention permits entry for warships of belligerents into neutral ports for limited durations.

Indian Issues with the Yuan Wang 5 in the Indian waters

(1) First, China has overtaken the US Navy and has become a “maritime Great Power”. It is mandated to safeguard the Maritime Silk Road that spans the Indo-Pacific and includes the China-Pakistan economic corridor.

(2) In recent years, China has created a string of ports, in India’s neighborhood, meant to contain India.

(3) The Yuan Wang 5 research/spy vessel comprises multi-spectral surveillance and eavesdropping devices. The ship has “lethal capabilities” and “aerial reach of more than 750 km”. Therefore, it could do reconnaissance of India’s atomic research centers within Indian borders.

(4) The visit of the PLA’s ship to Hambantota could lead to the infringement of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord. The accord calls upon the two countries not to allow their respective territories to be used for “activities prejudicial to each other’s unity, integrity, and security”.

What should be done?

(1) However, Colombo has often acknowledged that the security and economic interests of both India and Sri Lanka are inextricably interlinked and any deliberate actions that harm Indian interests will eventually rebound on it.

(2) Indian armed forces and other agencies are aware of such reconnaissance. They have already taken precautionary policies and procedures relating to electronic emissions and missile-firing trials. Further, the Indian Navy’s maritime domain awareness matrix would follow the position and movements of Yuan Wang 5, if it was in our waters,

(3) India needs to bolster its economic and maritime power. Further, India can enforce its version of a “Monroe Doctrine,” because there would be the frequent presence of PLAN in the Indian Ocean.

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