The Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that the research being carried out by a Chinese vessel calling at a port in the Maldives is exclusively for peaceful purposes and enhancing scientific understanding.

Speaking to the press in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the ship’s activities complied with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“China’s scientific research activities in relevant waters are for peaceful purposes and aimed at contributing to humanity’s scientific understanding of the ocean,” Wang said.

“For years, China and the Maldives have maintained close cooperation in marine scientific research. China appreciates the facilitation and assistance extended by the Maldives to Chinese research vessels entering its port on the basis of sovereignty and China-Maldives friendship and in accordance with the relevant provisions of international law,” he added.

However, this narrative is met with skepticism by India, which perceives the ship’s presence as a potential threat to its security interests, especially given the possibility of the collected data being used for military purposes in submarine operations.

The Maldives, traditionally within India’s sphere of influence, has seen a shift in its foreign policy under President Mohamed Muizzu, who advocates for a reduced Indian military footprint on the islands. This stance, coupled with the non-renewal of a hydrographic survey agreement with India, signifies a growing distance between Male and New Delhi. Instead, the Maldives is seeking to enhance its autonomy over its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by planning to conduct its own hydrographic surveys, thereby asserting control over its maritime resources and territory.

The backdrop to these events includes a broader competition for influence in the Indian Ocean, with China and India vying for strategic positions. China’s engagement in the region, exemplified by loans and infrastructure projects in countries like Sri Lanka, and the deployment of naval assets near Indian waters, underscores the geopolitical contest. In response to India’s concerns, Chinese officials and experts argue that their naval activities, including those of the Xiang Yang Hong 03, are legitimate and should not be contested by India.

India’s objections to the presence of Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean have historically been met with mixed reactions from regional players. While Sri Lanka has adjusted its stance by temporarily halting the visit of Chinese research vessels, the Maldives under President Muizzu appears more willing to pivot towards China, as evidenced by the initiation of Chinese-funded projects and the high-level diplomatic engagements between Malé and Beijing.

On Tuesday evening, President Mohamed Muizzu said the Maldives’ marine resources will be protected and thus surveyed and mapped by the nation itself.

Addressing the residents of Veymandoo Island in Thaa Atoll, the president explained that this was the reason his administration had decided not to renew the hydrography agreement signed with India during the former administration of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

“People would not want our seabed to be scanned, surveyed, mapped, and all this done by others. So, we decided not to renew the hydrographic agreement,” Muizzu said.

The information on the Maldives’ ocean resources should not be the property of any other country, the president said.

“Everything within this EEZ, within 974,000 square kilometres, is our property, is it not? We should know whatever is underneath… Scanning and mapping the depths of the Maldives’ ocean and it becomes their property while we pay for [access to] it; isn’t that ridiculous? We didn’t want to renew the agreement because it was made like this,” he said.

The decision was taken to protect the independence and sovereignty of the country for the sake of the people, the president said.

“In turn, our forces are expanding capacity and sourcing the equipment to do the scanning and mapping. The Ministry of Finance is now allocating the budget to the Ministry of Defence. We will do the work ourselves. We will not have to bring others,” said Muizzu, reiterating his commitment to maintaining the Maldives’ independence.

“We will protect [the autonomy of] our oceans, airspace, seas, land; everything ourselves,” the President and Commander in Chief outlined.

Additional Reporting by Ibrahim H. Shihab