Maldives is more than willing to do what Sri Lanka refuses to do for China if only it could irk India more.
On January 1, Sri Lanka refused permission for a Chinese research vessel to dock at Colombo and imposed a year-long ban on all such spy ships from visiting its ports, acquiescing to India’s security concerns.
But, Maldives’ new president, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, has green signaled the docking of the same Chinese vessel at Male, which could irritate New Delhi beyond measure.
Muizzu had recently announced he would go to China on his first official visit abroad since taking over as Maldives’ President later this month. This move is much against the convention of previous heads of state of Maldives, who invariably always chose India for their first foreign visits.
Close to that China visit announcement, which did not surprise the establishment in New Delhi, Muizzu has now granted permission for the Chinese spy ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 to dock in Male at the end of January.
The Sri Lanka Guardian reported on January 3, quoting unnamed sources from the Maldivian government, that Xiang Yang Hong 03 would be welcomed in Male despite sustained pressure from the Narendra Modi-led Indian government.
India is among nations that have raised security concerns that such Chinese research vessels are indeed spy ships that snoop on military infrastructure and activities of countries that Beijing thinks are adversarial to its rise in the global order.
The report cited unnamed sources in the Maldivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said that Male had “no objection” to Chinese warships mooring in Maldivian waters.
Muizzu had assumed office as Maldives’ president last October after a poll victory against then-president Ibrahim Solih, who was seen as “pro-India.” Muizzu reportedly granted permission for the Chinese research vessel, dismissing allegations that it could be involved in espionage.
The Muizzu move follows Maldives Vice President Hussain Mohamed Latheef’s official visit to China in December, where he participated in the ‘China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation’ organized by the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA).
Muizzu’s administration in Maldives is characterized by foreign media outlets as being “pro-China” and “anti-India,” though this labeling has been rejected by him, claiming he was “pro-Maldives.”
However, Muizzu’s ‘India, Get Out’ poll campaign, his outbursts against India, and his government’s recent decisions, including one asking New Delhi to withdraw its military assistance to the atoll nation and the defense personnel stationed there to assist Male’s security forces, indicate more than just his disclaimers.
The Xiang Yang Hong 3 was initially scheduled to conduct “deep water exploration” in the south Indian Ocean from January until May 2024. The vessel had also requested permission to dock in Colombo. However, it was denied permission.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had raised the issue of Chinese spy vessels docking, raising concerns in New Delhi, with the visiting Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe on July 21, 2023.
India Red Flags Colombo, Male Over Chinese Submarines & Warships, Including Spy Vessels
In December, another Chinese research vessel, Shi Yan 06, ended its survey of the Indian Ocean, particularly off the Sri Lankan coast, and returned to China after a halt in Singapore on December 2.
In 2023, at least 10 of the Yuan Wang class of Chinese research vessels, said to be to gather intelligence, carry out surveillance, and do reconnaissance for future military navigation and operations of Chinese warships and submarines in the Indian Ocean Region, were spotted close to the Indian waters carrying out surveys and capturing data, including those of Indian missile tests.
India has repeatedly objected to mooring Chinese warships and submarines in both Sri Lanka and Maldives. It has requested Colombo and Male not to permit these Chinese vessels to dock at their ports or conduct explorations in the Indian Ocean with future military operations in mind.
In December, Xiang Yang Hong 03 was spotted off the coast of Xiamen in the South China Sea, sailing towards the Malacca Straits to enter the Indian Ocean Region with an itinerary of visiting Sri Lanka and Maldives. China has sought permission from both Colombo and Male for the docking and survey operations of Xiang Yang Hong 03.
The 2016-built Xiang Yang Hong 03 is a 4,813-ton vessel with the latest survey and surveillance equipment. The ship is registered at the port of Xiamen.
Ranil Wickremesinghe government had permitted Shi Yan 06, which preceded Xiang Yang Hong 03, to dock in Colombo in the Indian Ocean Region despite India’s strong protests.
Shi Yan 06 explored the Sri Lankan Exclusive Economic Zone and the southern Indian Ocean. The ship was also spotted by the Indian Navy 500 nautical miles off Chennai before it entered Colombo port on October 25.
India has objected to the docking and exploration by Chinese ballistic missile trackers and Research Surveillance Ships in Sri Lanka and now by the pro-China government in Maldives over concerns that these vessels spy on India in the name of marine survey.
In the name of marine surveys, Chinese spy ships are mapping the Indian Ocean bed from the ninety-degree ridge south of Andamans and Nicobar Islands to the deep South Indian Ocean to gather navigation and aquatic data.
These ocean bed maps are crucial to submarine operations by China’s People’s Liberation Army – Navy. Hence, Beijing is interested in mapping the ocean from the Malacca Straits to the African coast, including the Gulf of Aden.
China had first ventured into the Indian Ocean Region in 2007 under the pretext of sending its warships to join the anti-piracy operations against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
With China already possessing three aircraft carriers and innumerable conventional and nuclear-powered submarines, it was only a matter of time before it would begin flexing its muscles in the Indian Ocean Region and carry out power projection operations.
Late last year, the Chinese Navy conducted a laborious maritime exercise with the Pakistan Navy off the Makran coast with a PLA Song class diesel hunter-killer submarine participating in specialized “sea bottoming” operations.
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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