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Maritime Alarm: India’s Concern Over Chinese Research Vessel in Maldives

Chinese Vessel in Maldives

A Chinese research vessel is about to dock in the Maldives, raising concerns in India, which is increasingly concerned that data collected by such vessels could be used for military purposes.

The Maldives Foreign Ministry said last week that it had approved the ship, named Xiangyanghong 3, “to dock at the port for personnel rotation and replenishment” at China’s request. But the Maldives Foreign Ministry said the ship would not conduct any research in Maldivian waters.

The announcement follows the election of President Mohamed Muizzu, seen as pro-China, and heightened diplomatic tensions between India and the Maldives.

The Maldives’ approval of the Chinese ship’s docking comes weeks after India’s neighboring country, Sri Lanka, a small country in the Indian Ocean, suspended all foreign scientific research vessels from entering its waters for one year.

Sri Lanka’s moratorium was apparently prompted by India’s objections to the docking of at least two Chinese scientific research and surveillance vessels in Sri Lanka in the past year and a half. Last year, the Chinese scientific research vessel “Experiment 6” conducted a maritime study in Sri Lankan waters.

Analysts say New Delhi is concerned about a Chinese research vessel due to dock in the Maldives in the coming days because of concerns that the data collected could be used to deploy Chinese submarines in the region.

“Our suspicion is that the ship, although an oceanographic research vessel, is gathering information that China can use to expand its underwater military operations and improve its anti-submarine warfare capabilities as it studies the Indian Ocean environment, seabed, temperature profiles, eddies, ocean currents, and so on. This means that China will have military superiority in the Indian Ocean for some time to come,” said Abhijit, director of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. Abhijit Singh told the media.

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The Indian Ocean has become a key strategic waterway for India and China amid rising geopolitical tensions, with competition between the two Asian giants deepening after a four-year military standoff on their Himalayan border.

“Beijing has a strong interest in the Indian Ocean because it is an important sea lane and is the only way for ships carrying energy, oil, trade, and other cargo. What they are doing is conducting reconnaissance on the high seas and studying hydrology or hydrological conditions because their submarines may one day operate here,” retired Indian Navy Commander Arun Prakash told the media. “China is preparing for major maritime deployments in the coming years, so India is concerned.”

The Maldives and Sri Lanka are strategically located on major shipping routes. Although the Maldives Foreign Ministry said China’s Xiangyanghong 3 would not be studied, analysts said this was unlikely to reassure New Delhi.

“Once the ship gets there, it’s very difficult for the Maldives to make sure it doesn’t do the job it sets out to do,” Singh said.

A report released earlier this month by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said China’s investigations in the Indian Ocean have “clear military value, particularly for submarine warfare.”

According to the report, China’s survey activities, which were previously focused on areas around the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, have now also set their sights on the Indian Ocean.

The report said: “While China’s oceanographic research may generate scientific and commercial benefits, these activities may also be critical to the People’s Liberation Army expanding its operational reach and capabilities in the Indian Ocean. Such expansion would be critical to major regional players such as India, and the United States and its allies pose a major challenge.”

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After the report was released, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said that China’s marine scientific research is fully in compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“We hope that relevant parties will view China’s marine scientific research activities objectively and refrain from making unreasonable speculations through colored glasses,” Mao Ning said on January 12.

The Chinese ship’s permission to dock comes just weeks after both sides pledged to strengthen ties during Maldives President Muizu’s visit to Beijing this month.

“China will leverage its growing relationship with the Maldives to conduct inspections in these waters,” Singh said.

Over the past two decades, Indian Ocean countries such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives have witnessed a geopolitical tug-of-war between India and China over their strategic presence.

“The Maldives has always been a hospitable destination for vessels from friendly countries and will continue to host civilian and military vessels calling for peaceful purposes,” the Maldives’ foreign ministry said last week, referring to the No. 3” visit.

“The deployment of such research vessels in the Indian Ocean will increase and will not decrease in the coming years,” Prakash said.

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