Chinese research vessel heads to Maldives, could concern India

By Krishn Kaushik

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A Chinese research vessel is on its way to the Maldives, according to an Indian military official and an independent researcher, as new Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu deepens ties with Beijing, distancing from New Delhi.

It is likely to raise concern in New Delhi, which has previously viewed the presence of such vessels close to its shores, including in Sri Lanka in 2022, as problematic.

These vessels are not military ships, officially, but India and others worry about the military use of their research.

Relations between traditional friends New Delhi and Male have soured since President Muizzu took office in November riding an ‘India Out’ campaign.

Both New Delhi and Beijing vie for influence on the tiny Indian Ocean nation but the new government in Male is pivoting towards China and has asked India to withdraw its nearly 80 troops stationed there.

The Chinese vessel is en-route to Male, open source intelligence researcher Damien Symon wrote on social media platform X, saying Xiang Yang Hong 03 “is entering the Indian Ocean Region, displaying its destination as Male, the vessel is expected to run an ocean survey operation in the Indian Ocean Region raising concern in #India”.

An Indian military official confirmed Symon’s finding and said they are monitoring its movement.  

The Maldivian president’s office, India’s foreign ministry and China’s defence ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

New Delhi has in the past flagged similar visits by other Chinese research vessels with its other littoral neighbour Sri Lanka, which has denied permission for such vessels to dock on its ports since 2022.

In 2019, India expelled another Chinese research vessel from its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) after it entered without permission.

A senior Indian security official said China’s research vessels are “dual use” which means the information gathered by them can be used for both civilian and military purposes, including the deployment of submarines.

Both the Indian military and security officials spoke on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak publicly on the subject.

Earlier this month, state-affiliated Chinese media warned against calling its maritime research in the Indian Ocean Region a threat, after an American think tank said China’s navy could “leverage the insights gained from these missions” for deployment of naval forces.

Vietnam and Indonesia have previously claimed that similar Chinese research vessels had entered their EEZ.

(Reporting by Krishn Kaushik in New Delhi; additional reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing and Uditha Jayasinghe in Colombo; editing by Christina Fincher)