University bows out of research project with Chinese vessel

A Sri Lankan university has become embroiled in a geopolitical tussle over maritime research collaboration with Chinese research vessel Shi Yan 6 (Experiment 6), which is expected to visit Sri Lanka next month.

Pressure has been openly exerted on Sri Lanka by other countries, notably India and the United States, over the intentions of the Chinese research vessel in the strategic Indian Ocean region.

The research vessel was cleared to enter Sri Lankan waters after an agreement with the state-run University of Ruhuna in southern Sri Lanka. However, the university said this month it will no longer be collaborating with the research vessel.

When asked whether the University of Ruhuna’s non-involvement was due to government pressure, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry clarified during a TV interview on 9 October that the ministry had not exerted any influence on academics from the University of Ruhuna.

However, he said the foreign ministry is responsible for granting the vessel permission to dock and any university intending to engage in research with a vessel requires foreign ministry approval.

China’s well-equipped oceanic research vessels have come under suspicion in the past. They are seen by some of China’s geopolitical rivals as a cover for spying missions. The geographic location of Sri Lanka is a pivotal factor, as the island is strategically positioned at a crucial choke point in the Indian Ocean.

Shi Yan 6 is said to be carrying instruments and equipment to study the ocean floor, which is often sensitive information, particularly that which is related to the valuable seabed resources around Sri Lanka.

Those who do not specifically oppose visits by Chinese research vessels have nonetheless highlighted the lack of transparency and uneven research relationship between Sri Lanka and Chinese research vessels.

Some academics in developing countries have accused China of gathering valuable data overseas but not sharing it with collaborating countries to enhance scientific knowledge in the countries visited by the research vessels.

Vessel visit rescheduled to late November

Sabry has said Shi Yan 6 is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka at the end of November. Initially, it was planned to arrive on 25 October to conduct research with the University of Ruhuna and Sri Lanka’s National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).

“Originally, they [the Chinese] had requested to come in October, but Sri Lanka insisted on a late November arrival due to the government’s current priorities and the need to address sensitive matters related to the Chinese ship’s visit,” the minister said.

The China-Sri Lanka Joint Center for Education and Research (CSL-CER) at the University of Ruhuna, at which the project was to be based, confirmed it has not yet finalised an agreement with Shi Yan 6 to conduct research.

CSL-CER Co-Director Professor Disna Ratnasekera told University World News the centre had a prior collaboration with Chinese research vessel Shi Yan 3 in 2018 when it visited Sri Lanka. However, a university lecturer who had initially participated in joint research with Shi Yan 3 has since moved abroad. Due to this, the centre is no longer part of Shi Yan 6 research, she said.

NARA to go ahead with research

However, NARA has confirmed it will be involved in research carried out by the Chinese ship. NARA Chairman Jayantha Wijeyaratne said the agency will mainly focus on research related to water quality, but not the seabed.

Established in 1981, NARA is Sri Lanka’s premier institute responsible for researching, developing and managing aquatic resources. Over the years, NARA has conducted extensive scientific studies in fisheries and aquatic resources.

Wijeyaratne emphasised the significance of ongoing water quality research in cases of marine disasters such as the oil spill in May 2021 caused by the Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl – a cargo vessel carrying chemicals and lubricant oils which partially sank off Sri Lanka’s western coast causing significant coastal environmental damage in what is considered one of Sri Lanka’s biggest maritime disasters – and the September 2020 disaster after a fire onboard the MT New Diamond, a crude oil carrier.

This research plays a crucial role in supporting and advancing investigations into these events, he said.

CSL-CER has established a three-dimensional marine meteorological observation network in Sri Lanka and developed a hazard forecasting system based on the observation data and modelling technology. The forecasting system has been shared with Sri Lankan authorities and stakeholders for disaster prevention and mitigation.

The joint centre with China was set up in 2014 in partnership with the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Guangzhou, southern China, and is the CAS’s first overseas research centre on marine sciences. In 2018, Sri Lanka and China inaugurated a new building for the CSL-CER at the University of Ruhuna’s premises with the aim of strengthening marine sciences.

CAS has also hosted many Sri Lankan students pursuing postgraduate and doctoral degrees on marine sciences at its research institutes during the last few years and has held seminars and conferences at the joint centre in Sri Lanka on issues such as monsoons, marine biology and natural products, marine geology, environmental pollution, water quality, and plant diversity in Sri Lanka.

Research transparency

However, some Sri Lankan academics have highlighted the need for transparency in research with visiting research vessels from China.

Professor Emerita Ruchira Cumaratunga, who established the country’s first university oceanography department at the University of Ruhuna, highlighted the need for dialogue and collaboration between Chinese and Sri Lankan scientists and researchers involved in projects with the Chinese research vessel.

“There must be a discussion between the Chinese and Sri Lankan scientists and researchers involved. For example, what will be done, what kind of information will be gathered and where the collected information will be stored,” she told local media.

“This is not the first time that a research ship has arrived in Sri Lanka,” she added. “However, the manner in which the collected data is stored is problematic. There is no report on the previous Chinese engagement with the university on the [Ruhuna] university website,” she noted, comparing this with collaborations with the Norwegian research vessel Fridtjof Nansen, whose data “can be accessed by anyone”.

Cumaratunga expressed apprehension regarding the Chinese research vessel, saying “Sri Lanka needs to have access to the data”. She noted the importance of transparent and easily accessible data and storage methods in scientific collaborations for the benefit of both the academic community and the public.

Little was also known about what equipment the Chinese will bring off the Sri Lankan coast, or who in Sri Lanka would take part in the research, she added.

Geopolitical pressures

Shi Yan 6 departed from Guangzhou, in south China’s Guangdong province, on 10 September and has already arrived in the Indian Ocean. According to Chinese official media it is embarking on a sea expedition featuring 28 scientific research projects from 13 research teams, covering over 12,000 nautical miles.

The multidisciplinary voyage seeks to gather fundamental data on the impacts of dynamic processes on marine systems, biodiversity patterns, and paleoclimate changes, official media said, adding the expedition aims to strengthen scientific cooperation with countries along the Maritime Silk Road and contribute to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In recent years more than 15 Chinese research and survey vessels, such as Shi Yan 1, Shi Yan 3, Xiang Yang Hong 1, and Xiang Yang Hong 3, have visited Sri Lanka.

Sabry acknowledged the intricate challenges posed by geopolitical pressures on Sri Lanka, emphasising the need for a “well-prepared response” to the ongoing struggle for influence among major global powers, with Sri Lanka occupying a strategic position in the Indian Ocean.

He stressed the critical importance of achieving a delicate balance and maintaining positive relations “with all stakeholders involved in this complex scenario”.

Opposition to Chinese research vessels

The Indian government has openly expressed opposition to the arrival of the Chinese research vessel. Following India, the United States has also raised concern over the scheduled visit of the research vessel, reported Daily Mirror.

India has been closely monitoring the increasing presence of Chinese vessels at Sri Lankan ports, particularly Colombo and Hambantota. Notably, in 2022, Sri Lanka granted permission for the Chinese research ship Yuan Wang 5 to dock at Hambantota Port, which raised concerns in India.

Yuan Wang 5 was not involved in any research activities with Sri Lankan universities.

India had characterised Yuan Wang 5 as a Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship. Sri Lanka granted port access to the vessel on condition that it kept its Automatic Identification System switched on within Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone and that no scientific research would be conducted in Sri Lankan waters.

In a recent interview with China’s state-run TV CGTN, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe referred to Shi Yan 6, stating that Sri Lanka was open to collaboration in the field of marine research “with all parties”.

Wickremesinghe also expressed the nation's commitment to exploring ways to ensure freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean, reaffirming Sri Lanka’s stance on fostering cooperation while safeguarding its sovereignty and interests.