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Bid to locate Admiral Zheng’s sunken vessels runs into controversy

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Critics allege whole project a smokescreen; Shi Yan 6 receives premission for docking

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Amidst the ongoing controversy over a proposed survey to be undertaken in terms of a project initiated in late 2014 to locate the wrecks of vessels belonging to Admiral Zheng He’s fleet off the southern coast, the government has granted permission for the docking of Chinese research vessel Shi Yan 6 in the Colombo harbour later this year.

Shi Yan 6 is expected to undertake research jointly with the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA). Shin Yan 6 is scheduled to arrive here in late October and is expected to engage in research activities for over two weeks. China State Shipbuilding Co. Ltd., delivered the vessel in December 2020. It is their first medium-sized comprehensive research vessel that focuses on geophysical exploration.

Authoritative sources said that the agreement inked in 2014 involved different parties. The signing of the agreement to find shipwrecks coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Colombo in September 2014 towards the end of Mahinda Rajapaka’s second term to inaugurate the USD 1.4 bn Colombo Port City project.

In terms of the twice-amended agreement, China (Institute of Acoustics, Chinese Academy of Sciences) and Sri Lanka (Central Cultural Fund), three surveys were carried out during the Yahapalana administration. The original agreement was amended during the UNP-SLFP coalition.

A shipwreck found during one of the three surveys was later identified as a sunken Norwegian vessel.The two parties have agreed to conduct two more surveys and Shi Yan 6 was to conduct the fourth survey, sources said, adding that the project was to continue until 2026.

The project was intended to locate the sunken vessels of Chinese Admiral He’s fleet used to invade Sri Lanka during 1410/1411. Conflict erupted when a large Chinese fleet sought to establish maritime routes in Sri Lankan waters.

Prof. Gamini Ranasinghe, Director General, Central Cultural Fund recently brought the latest amendment to the notice of Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, Secretary, Ministry of Defence. Contrary to reports, the fourth survey is scheduled for January next year.

The two parties have agreed to establish a joint research centre to further expand the studies and widen the area of ‘operations.’The scheduled fourth survey has attracted public attention due to India expressing concerns over Chinese ship visits though the three previous surveys took place without controversy.

Sources said that the issue was under consideration at the highest level, and it was not clear whether the agreement inked in 2014 or subsequent amendments had received the Attorney General’s clearance. France, too, was interested in setting up a research and training facility here. In spite of its offer for a partnership with the Kotelawela Defence University (KDU), Sri Lanka has suggested Trincomalee as the venue for the joint venture.

However, a recent visit undertaken by a French intelligence gathering vessel to Colombo harbour went unnoticed.

The Island learns that the government is reviewing the Zheng He joint project.

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