Maldives visit of Chinese survey ship could trigger Indian Ocean security concerns

By Thomson Reuters Feb 21, 2024 | 10:17 PM

By Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese research ship is set to arrive in the Maldives on Thursday, global ship-tracking data showed, just three months after a similar vessel visited the Indian Ocean and sparked New Delhi’s security concerns.

The visit follows January comments by a U.S. think tank that China’s navy could “leverage the insights gained from these missions” for deployment of naval forces, a claim Beijing calls part of a concocted image-smearing “China threat” narrative.

Xiang Yang Hong 03, owned by a research institute that reports to China’s natural resources ministry, is due to make a port call at Male, data from MarineTraffic showed, more than a month after leaving its southeastern home port of Xiamen.

The civilian ship spent more than three weeks surveying waters just outside the exclusive economic zones of India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, the ship-tracking data showed.

China’s foreign ministry has said research by the vessel was “exclusively” for peaceful purposes to benefit scientific understanding.

In recent years, India has voiced concern about the presence of China’s research vessels in the Indian Ocean, even if they do not belong to the military.

An Indian security official has previously said the vessels were “dual-use”, meaning the data they gather can be used for both civilian and military purposes.

Xiang Yang Hong 03 has visited the Indian Ocean multiple times.

It sailed through the Sunda Strait in Indonesia in 2021, alarming Indonesian authorities, who said it had switched off its tracking system three times.

Chinese research vessels have also stopped in nearby Sri Lanka.

In 2022, Yuan Wang 5, a military vessel capable of tracking rocket and missile launches, arrived in Colombo, alarming India.

The last time a Chinese research vessel docked in Sri Lanka was in October 2023, reviving India’s concerns. But in January, the island nation imposed a year-long moratorium on foreign research ships, effectively denying China a port of call.

Xiang Yang Hong 03’s arrival follows a January visit to China by Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu that upgraded ties, with Beijing offering 920 million yuan ($128 million) in “free aid”.

The Maldives has said the vessel would do no research in its waters, stopping only for personnel rotation and replenishment of supplies.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)