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Chinese research vessel, over which India raised concerns, departs from Maldives

The Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3 docked on February 23 in Thilafushi, about 7.5 km to the west of Male despite India's concerns over alleged surveillance. The China-friendly Maldives government said the ship won't conduct any research in Maldivian waters.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Male Published on: February 28, 2024 23:22 IST
China, Chinese ship, Maldives
Image Source : X Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3 departed from the Maldives

Male: A 4,500-tonne high-tech Chinese research vessel which made a port call in the Maldives last week despite India's concerns has left the shores of the country, local media reports on Wednesday. Chinese authorities officially maintained that the ship named Xiang Yang Hong 3 was in the Maldives to "make a port call, for the rotation of its personnel and replenishment."

Xiang Yang Hong 3 has returned to the boundary of the Maldives' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) after docking in Male on February 22. However, despite departing from the Male harbour, tracking sites have shown the vessel's last signal near Hulhumale two days ago, according to Maldivian local media.

The vessel had docked on February 23 in Thilafushi, about 7.5 km to the west of Male. It is expected to have turned off tracking systems, which it also did en route to Male on January 22 when it was in the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia. The vessel can also be used for studies on salinity, microbial genetic studies, underwater mineral exploration, and underwater life and environmental studies, according to reports.

India's concerns over Chinese vessel

The vessel's zigzag movements between the Maldives and Sri Lanka have heightened concerns in New Delhi, reflecting broader anxieties over China's expanding influence in the Indian Ocean Region. India's apprehensions extend beyond the immediate vicinity of the Maldives, encompassing the broader strategic implications of the Chinese vessel's activities. 

India has flagged similar visits by other Chinese research vessels with its other neighbour Sri Lanka, which has denied permission for such vessels to dock in its ports since 2022. In the first half of August last year, India raised concerns over a Chinese surveillance warship that docked at the Colombo Port. Sri Lanka had delayed the arrival of the Chinese vessel after concerns raised by India. The concerns stemmed from the possibility that the vessel's tracking systems could be used to spy on Indian defence installations while it was on its way to Sri Lanka.

In 2021, India expressed strong concerns over a similar visit by Yuan Wang 5 - a Chinese ballistic missile and satellite tracking ship - to Hambantota Port. In 2019, India expelled another Chinese research vessel from its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) after it entered without permission.

Earlier on January 23, the new China-friendly Maldives government said it had permitted the research vessel, equipped to carry research and surveys, to dock at Male port, saying the halt was for replenishment and that it would “not be conducting any research while in the Maldivian waters.”

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson has previously defended the port call by the Chinese research ship to the Maldives saying, “China’s scientific research activities in relevant waters are for peaceful purposes and aimed at contributing to humanity’s scientific understanding of the ocean.”

About Xiang Yang Hong 3

The 100-metre-long vessel was added to the fleet of China's State Oceanic Administration (SOA) in 2016. This is the only 4,500-tonne vessel currently in China. Since 2019, China has also been using the vessel to conduct ‘distant water’ and ‘deep sea’ surveys at China's Pilot Ocean Laboratory, according to reports.

It has data buoys that can measure ocean currents, waves, and important environmental information, providing real-time satellite information to the Chinese government. Incidentally, the Chinese vessel was present near the India-Maldives-Sri Lanka trilateral Dosti-16 exercise that took place in the ocean near Male between February 22 and 25.

On January 5, Sri Lanka, while denying entry to the Xiang Yang Hong 03, said it has declared a moratorium on foreign research ships entering its waters for a year amid concerns from India over Chinese research vessels docking in its neighbourhood.

An American think-tank has alleged that a vast fleet of China's “scientific research” ships is collecting data from the oceans, including in the Indian Ocean Region, for military purposes, especially for submarine operations, a charge denied by Beijing, which said the Chinese vessels operations are in line with the UN Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

(with PTI inputs)

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