India has expressed its concerns to Sri Lanka and the Maldives regarding a Chinese research vessel mission in the South Indian Ocean. The latest development revolves around the Chinese Research Survey Vessel Shi Yan 6, which completed its survey off Sri Lanka’s coast and reached Singapore on 2 December.

Beijing has subsequently sought permission from Malé and Colombo to allow another Research Survey Vessel, Xiang Yang Hong 03, to dock at their ports for deep-water exploration from 5 January to late May 2024.

India has raised objections with both the Maldives and Sri Lanka, urging them not to permit the Chinese vessel for exploration.

The concerns cited were potential future military operations.

According to reports from The Hindustan Times, India is particularly worried about Chinese vessels, including ballistic missile trackers and Research Surveillance Ships, being allowed by Sri Lanka and now with “a pro-China government” in the Maldives. The Indian concerns centre around the possibility of Beijing using these vessels to spy on India under the pretext of marine exploration.

The vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 is currently off the coast of Xiamen in the South China Sea and plans to travel via Malacca to Sri Lanka and the Maldives after obtaining permission. The move comes in the wake of observations in 2023, where up to 10 Yuan Wang series Chinese intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance ships were reported in the Indian Ocean Region.

India’s diplomatic efforts to dissuade the Maldives and Sri Lanka from allowing the Chinese vessel’s exploration activities highlight the broader concerns regarding the strategic balance in the region.

Despite formal objections raised by India, the Chinese Research Survey Vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 remains positioned off the coast of Xiamen in the South China Sea.

Manufactured in 2016, Xiang Yang Hong 03 boasts a weight of 4813 tons and is equipped with the latest survey and surveillance equipment. Registered at the port of Xiamen, its journey from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean hinges on securing approval from the respective authorities in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Notably, the previous Chinese survey vessel, Shi Yan 6, obtained permission from the Ranil Wickremesinghe government despite objections from India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue directly with visiting President Ranil Wickremesinghe in July 2023. Modi highlighted the importance of Sri Lanka respecting India’s strategic concerns.

The backdrop of these concerns is China’s ambitious maritime expansion, particularly evident in the rapid growth of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. With three aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and guided missile destroyers, China is strategically increasing its presence across the Indian Ocean. This expansion is part of a broader strategy that includes establishing naval bases from Cambodia to Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea.

China’s growing influence is observed by its acquisition or investment in ports in various countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, and the UAE. These investments highlight China’s strategic interest in future naval operations in the region.

Allegations have surfaced that Beijing’s purported marine exploration activities in the Indian Ocean are, in fact, a cover for mapping the ocean bed. This mapping extends from the ninety-degree ridge south of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the deep South Indian Ocean. Detailed ocean bed maps are reportedly being prepared for future submarine operations, reaching the coast of Africa.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is already engaged in operations off the coast of Africa and the Gulf of Aden under the guise of anti-piracy efforts. This raises concerns that Chinese carrier strike forces may eventually patrol international waters in the Indian Ocean, given the PLA’s growing maritime capabilities.

In a recent development, the Chinese Navy conducted an exercise with the Pakistan Navy off the Makran Coast. This exercise included a PLA Song-class diesel hunter-killer submarine participating in specialised “sea bottoming” operations. The term “sea bottoming” suggests operations conducted on or near the ocean floor, possibly indicating strategic activities or preparations for submarine operations in the region.

As geopolitical tensions continue to escalate, the evolving dynamics in the Indian Ocean region pose a complex challenge for nations seeking to balance strategic interests while maintaining regional stability.

If India’s diplomatic appeals remain unaddressed, the nation may find itself compelled to apply diplomatic pressure and engage with regional partners, according to observers. To reinforce its security posture, India might consider enhancing its naval capabilities and implementing advanced counter-intelligence measures to closely monitor Chinese activities in the region.

Analysts believe India may look for collaborative efforts with like-minded nations such as the United States and Japan, who also harbour concerns about China’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean.

The intensifying competition between India and China for strategic dominance raises the spectre of heightened instability in the region. If China’s actions are seen as a threat to the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean, it could lead to a potential disruption of crucial trade routes. Such a disruption could affect the global economy.