Chinese research vessel in Maldives sparks security concerns from India


Male: A Chinese ship, designated as a research vessel, has entered the waters of the Maldives, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, according to a report by Reuters on Thursday. The ship, named ‘Xiang Yang Hong 03’, is said to be mapping the ocean floor, a task that has raised security alarms from India, which considers the Maldives as part of its sphere of influence.

India’s suspicion of China’s intentions

India has been closely monitoring the movement of the Chinese ship, fearing that it could be used for espionage or military purposes. India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said on February 1 that India always keeps a close eye on developments that impact its economic and security interests and takes necessary steps to safeguard them when required.

India’s concern stems from the fact that China has been expanding its presence and activities in the Indian Ocean region, which India regards as its strategic backyard. China has invested heavily in infrastructure projects and port facilities in countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. China has also deployed its naval and coast guard vessels in the region, ostensibly for anti-piracy and humanitarian missions, but also for asserting its maritime claims and interests.

China’s growing fleet of research vessels

The ‘Xiang Yang Hong 03’ is one of the many China Marine Research Vessels (CMRVs), a national survey fleet that was established in 2012. According to defence experts, China has been increasing both the number and size of its CMRVs, which are equipped with advanced technologies and capabilities for ocean exploration and exploitation. China claims that its CMRVs are engaged in scientific research and international cooperation, but some analysts suspect that they could also be used for dual-use purposes, such as collecting intelligence, mapping strategic locations, and testing underwater weapons.

Maldives’ diplomatic balancing act

The arrival of the Chinese ship in the Maldives also coincides with the strained relations between the Maldives and India, after President Mohamed Muizzu came to power in 2023. Muizzu, who campaigned on an anti-India platform, has tilted towards China in his foreign policy, seeking more economic and political support from Beijing. He visited China last month, before visiting India for the election, and signed several agreements on trade, tourism, and infrastructure.

The Maldives foreign ministry, however, said that the Chinese ship was in the Maldives on a diplomatic request from China, for the necessary clearances to make a port call, for rotation of personnel and replenishment. The ministry also said that the ship would not conduct any research while docked in Male port, and that the Maldives has always been a welcoming destination for vessels of friendly countries, and continues to host both civilian and military vessels making port calls for peaceful purposes.