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Yuan Wang 5: China’s Freedom of Navigation Operations

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

With the movement of research vessel Yuan Wang 5 to Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, China appears to be enforcing a mandate for establishing freedom of navigation operations [FONOPS] While Beijing has been wary of FONOPS by the US Navy in the South China Sea and has objected to the passage of naval ships through the waters which are subject of a dispute between China and South East Asian littoral states as Vietnam, it appears that the PLA Navy is seeking to, “test the waters,” of FONOPS in areas to which India has expressed sensitivity in the past that is Sri Lanka.

Thus, as a reaction to reports of passage of Yuan Wang 5, India has expressed concerns and is said to be keeping a watch following a report that a Chinese satellite and ballistic missile support vessel ‘Yuan Wang 5‘will be visiting Hambantota port on August 11 to conduct satellite and analysis monitoring within the Indian Ocean Region.

As per the Wikipedia, Yuan Wang-class (Chinese: 远望; lit. 'Long View') are used for tracking and support of satellite and intercontinental ballistic missiles by the People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

However, each vessel in the class is designed for specific reconnaissance purpose and the exact details of Yuan Wang 5 are not known in open sources.

As per website tracking Marine Traffic YUAN WANG 5 (IMO: 9413054) has a carrying capacity is 11000 t DWT and her current draught is reported to be 8.2 meters. Her length overall (LOA) is 222 meters, and her width is 25.2 meters.

Research/Survey Vessel YUAN WANG 5 is currently located at CHINA - East China Sea at position 25° 58' 06.8" N, 125° 50' 31.6" E as reported by MarineTraffic Terrestrial Automatic Identification System on 2022-07-15 12:45 UTC (14 days, 20 hours ago)

As per Marine Traffic, the vessel departed from JIANGYIN, CN on 2022-07-13 09:00 LT (UTC +8) and is currently sailing at 19.0 knots with Southeast direction heading to HAMBANTOTA, LK with reported Estimated Time of Arrival at 2022-08-11 12:00 LT (UTC +8) local time (in 11 days, 19 hours)

Apart from establishing FONOPS Yuan Wang 5 could establish a base for tracking in Hambantota in the future as stated in a Sri Lankan report, “conduct space tracking, satellite control and research tracking in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean region through August and September”.

Diplomatic Reactions

The Indian High Commission has reportedly taken up the issue with the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry verbally.

China on the other hand defended the visit of the satellite monitoring ship to Hambantota a port that has been constructed by the country and which is operated by it. This is the first time since 2014 that such a Chinese PLAN vessel is visiting Lanka.

As per Reuters China July 30th hoped that “relevant parties” would refrain from interfering with legitimate maritime activities [sic FONOPS].

China's foreign ministry as per Reuters said, “China hopes that the relevant parties will view and report on China’s marine scientific research activities correctly and refrain from interfering with normal and legitimate maritime activities,” the ministry said in a statement.

In 2014, a Chinese submarine had visited Colombo which had led to objections to India at the level of the National Secuity Adviser. While Sri Lanka has the sovereign rights to permit any ship to visit its ports, India expects that Colombo is sensitive to concerns of military presence of adversaries as China in proximity. Thus, India may have limited impact on the decision which Sri Lanka will claim is a sovereign one and may be balancing the factor for gaining additional assistance from India and China facing an acute economic crisis.

Sri Lanka facing an economic crisis may be looking at gaining maximum leverage with India as well as China by exercising sovereign rights to accord permission or otherwise to Yuan Wang 5.

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