The Chinese marine research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 has reportedly returned to the periphery of the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) after a brief docking period in Male’. This move comes shortly after the vessel docked in Thilafushi on 23 February, following its arrival in Male’ on February 22, as confirmed by tracking sites such as Marine Traffic.

The Foreign Ministry of Maldives, in a statement last month, acknowledged the arrival of the vessel, citing “rotation of personnel and replenishment” as the purpose of its visit. This clarification came amid growing regional scrutiny over China’s naval ambitions, particularly in the strategically sensitive Indian Ocean region.

The Xiang Yang Hong 03, touted as the most modern research vessel in the Chinese fleet, embarked on its journey to the Maldives on 14 January 2024. This was a day after President Dr. Mohamed Muizzu concluded his state visit to China, signaling a recent upgrade in Sino-Maldivian relations. Notably, China granted 920 million yuan in aid to the Maldives, marking a significant milestone in their bilateral ties.

Despite the vessel’s departure from Male’ harbour, its tracking systems were reportedly turned off near Hulhumale’ two days ago, mirroring a similar action while en route to Male’ on 22 January when it was off the coast of Indonesia. Satellite AIS tracking has since located the vessel approximately 190 miles east of Fuvahmulah, within the Maldives’ EEZ, but heading away from it.

The vessel’s activities, particularly its pattern of travel near the EEZ before docking in Male’, are consistent with typical research vessel operations. However, the Maldivian government has stressed that no research activities would be conducted in its waters, aligning with the stated purpose of the visit for personnel rotation and replenishment.

This incident occurs against the backdrop of heightened attention to China’s growing military and strategic presence in the Indian Ocean, a concern articulated by Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the 7th Indian Ocean Conference. The conference highlighted apprehensions about China’s military expansion and its implications for regional security dynamics.

The Maldives Foreign Ministry has reiterated the nation’s openness to vessels from friendly countries, emphasising the enhancement of bilateral ties and the longstanding tradition of welcoming such visits for peaceful purposes. This policy reflects the Maldives’ maritime diplomacy, balancing the welcoming of international cooperation with the need to safeguard against potential encroachments.