A Chinese marine research vessel, Xiang Yang Hong 03, has arrived near Malé after a month-long presence near the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), sparking discussions on regional security and the strategic intentions behind such movements. The vessel, which embarked on its journey on 14 January 2024, a day after President Dr Mohamed Muizzu’s state visit to China, has raised eyebrows due to its route and the opaque nature of its operations.

Marine Traffic tracking sites indicate the vessel is currently near Thilafushi, though its docking plans in Malé remain unclear. The ship, linked to China’s natural resources ministry, vanished from tracking systems on 22 January, leading to speculations that it had intentionally turned off its tracking devices while in the Java Sea off Indonesia. Satellite AIS tracking later revealed the vessel on the outskirts of the Maldivian EEZ, suggesting a deliberate attempt to avoid detection.

Owned by a research institute under China’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Xiang Yang Hong 03 has spent significant time surveying international waters close to India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, according to ship-tracking data. Despite assurances from China’s foreign ministry that the vessel’s research aims are peaceful and for scientific benefit, India has expressed concerns over the dual-use nature of such expeditions, implying that the data collected could serve military purposes as well.

The vessel’s arrival in the Indian Ocean is not its first, having previously navigated through sensitive regions and even causing alarm in Indonesia in 2021 for switching off its tracking system. Similar Chinese research and military vessels have made port calls in Sri Lanka, with the most recent visit in October 2023 reigniting Indian apprehensions.

The backdrop to Xiang Yang Hong 03’s current expedition includes a recent upgrade in Sino-Maldivian relations, marked by China’s grant of 920 million yuan in aid to the Maldives. The Maldivian Foreign Ministry has stated that the vessel’s visit is for personnel rotation and replenishment, emphasising that no research will be conducted in Maldivian waters and highlighting the tradition of welcoming friendly naval visits.

This development comes amid broader regional concerns over China’s naval ambitions and transparency issues, as voiced by Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the 7th Indian Ocean Conference. The conference highlighted apprehensions regarding China’s military expansion and strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean, reflecting the complex dynamics at play as nations navigate the balance between welcoming international cooperation and guarding against potential strategic encroachments.