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February 24, 2024

China Sends Research Vessel to Maldives, Raising Security Concerns for India

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Jan 24, 2024

China has dispatched a research vessel, Xiang Yang Hong 03, to the Maldives for a scheduled port call, despite objections from India over the move. The development signals growing Chinese influence in India’s backyard and has sparked concerns over maritime security in the region.

Lead Up to the Controversial Port Call

Relations between India and the Maldives have been strained since the election of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in 2018. Solih sought to steer the Maldives away from China’s orbit after years of heavy investment and influence under his predecessor Abdulla Yameen’s administration.

In 2020, Solih’s government publicly requested India to withdraw some of its military presence from the islands. The request took New Delhi by surprise, as it had deployed personnel and assets there at the Maldives’ request amid the heightened political turmoil.

Despite the occasional rifts, India has remained a close partner of the strategically located Indian Ocean archipelago, providing extensive economic and military assistance. The island nation sits near major East-West shipping routes and has long held an important place in India’s regional security calculus.

However, in recent years China has made steady inroads, financing major infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative. This has raised concerns in New Delhi about Beijing’s growing footprint in what India sees as its own sphere of influence.

Vessel Initially Denied Entry by Sri Lanka

The Xiang Yang Hong 03 research vessel departed from China earlier in January, destined for the Maldives’ port of Male after conducting deep-sea explorations and mapping of the Indian Ocean.

Notably, Sri Lanka had denied the vessel entry to its waters in December 2022 at India’s request. Colombo’s decision was seen as reaffirmation of its deference to New Delhi’s security sensitivities regarding Chinese naval activities in the region.

But the Maldives chose to disregard Indian objections and grant port access to the Chinese ship. The move signified Male’s willingness to counterbalance Indian pressure and expand engagement with China.

India Closely Monitoring Vessel’s Activities

As per its announced schedule, the Xiang Yang Hong 03 arrived in Male on January 23, 2024 for a week-long port call to resupply and refuel. It was allowed to dock despite strong reservations voiced by the Indian government.

The Indian Navy has deployed assets to closely track the Chinese research vessel’s activities near the Maldives and in the wider Indian Ocean region. Surveillance planes and ships are keeping a watch on the ship’s crew and monitoring any underwater equipment deployment.

India remains wary of the possibility that the research vessel could be engaged in hydrographic surveys to boost the Chinese navy’s abilities to deploy nuclear submarines and warships in the area in the future.

New Delhi sees Beijing’s maritime research activities as part of its larger strategic encirclement of India under the Belt and Road Initiative. Many analysts say China is attempting to lay the groundwork for a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean through benign civilian initiatives.

Maldives Downplays Security Risks, Touts Ties with China

In response to Indian misgivings, Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid stated that the Xiang Yang Hong 03 was granted access in line with “standard practice” as it did not pose any particular security threat.

Shahid emphasized that the Chinese vessel was coming only for a previously scheduled port call and would not undertake any research activities in Maldivian waters during its week-long stay.

However, India remains unconvinced and skeptical of these assurances. Experts have pointed out that such civilian research ships often have a dual military purpose, conducting ocean mapping and gathering data to assist Chinese submarine operations.

The Maldives, despite its tiny size, holds enormous geostrategic value due to its location along critical Indian Ocean shipping lanes through which much of the world’s oil transits. Analysts say President Solih faces a difficult balancing act, seeking to maintain good relations with both India and an increasingly assertive China.

| Timeline of Key Events |
|-|-|
| 2018 | Ibrahim Mohamed Solih elected President of Maldives |
| 2020 | Maldives requests India withdraw some military presence |
| December 2022 | Sri Lanka denies Chinese vessel entry at India’s request |
| January 2023 | Xiang Yang Hong 03 departs China for Indian Ocean |
| January 23, 2023 | Vessel docks in Male port for one week |

Divergent Perspectives on Port Call’s Implications

The Maldives’ willingness to buck Indian pressure has sparked divergent views on the broader geopolitical implications of the port call.

Perspective A: The development indicates the limitations of Indian influence over the Maldives, which retains strategic autonomy and seeks to balance ties with both Asian powers. Smaller countries in the region are increasingly unwilling to take sides as Sino-Indian competition intensifies.

Perspective B: The move constitutes a snub to India and shows growing Chinese inroads undermining Indian primacy in its own strategic backyard. It may incentivize China to dispatch more research vessels and naval assets to the Indian Ocean, raising risks of regional tensions.

Perspective C: The Maldives granted port access in line with international maritime practices and laws. The vessel does not pose an inherent security threat. Its presence should not be overly politicized or seen as indicative of any geopolitical realignment by the Maldives.

These divergent takes illustrate the complex dynamics at play between India, China and smaller regional countries like the Maldives. The strategic competition between Beijing and New Delhi appears set to intensify, with both sides seeking influence over island states across the Indian Ocean region.

Broader Implications for Regional Security Environment

Beyond the immediate controversy, the Chinese research vessel’s port call has wider implications for the evolving security environment in the Indian Ocean region.

Analysts say the move reflects Beijing’s expanding naval reach and ambition to project power across the Indo-Pacific. This could presage more regularized deployments of Chinese surveying ships and naval assets to the area.

For India, this represents an unwelcome strategic challenge in its maritime backyard. China’s ability to dispatch vessels despite Indian objections underscores how Beijing is now able and willing to press its interests even in areas of traditional Indian influence.

More broadly, the episode highlights China’s growing maritime capability and reach, which is providing it an enhanced presence across the Indo-Pacific. Many in the strategic community see this as indicative of an emboldened and assertive China that is now able to shape events and dynamics across Asia in a way it could not just a decade ago.

Domestic Criticism in India Over Perceived Loss of Regional Clout

The Maldives’ move has already sparked domestic criticism within India that New Delhi is losing strategic ground to Beijing in regions traditionally considered India’s sphere of influence.

Opposition leaders have blasted Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government, arguing its neighborhood policy has failed to retain Indian primacy across South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Some analysts say India appears reluctant to use its economic and military leverage to dissuade regional small states from partnerships with China. This is facilitating Beijing’s penetration of South Asia through major infrastructure aid and investments under the Belt and Road Initiative.

This carries risks that China may leverage its economic clout for strategic ends, undermining Indian security in what New Delhi has long deemed its own backyard. Some former diplomats and strategists have called on the Indian government to reassess its regional policies and take a tougher line on Chinese encroachment along its land and maritime periphery.

However, others counsel patience and pragmatism. They argue Smaller countries like the Maldives retain the sovereign right to engage diverse partners and balance external powers. Heavy-handed shows of Indian dominance could backfire by pushing regional states closer into China’s orbit.

Unlikely to Cause Lasting Diplomatic Rupture

Despite the controversy, the port call itself is unlikely to cause any major or lasting downturn in India-Maldives relations. Leaders in both countries have avoided bellicose rhetoric or punitive actions that could spark a deeper rift.

However, the episode does highlight latent tensions in the relationship that could surface in the future. The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean archipelago will continue making it an arena of regional competition. Meanwhile, the Maldives’ political and economic dependence on external powers limits its ability to strike a fully independent course.

Both sides ultimately retain a fundamental interest in stable and friendly relations. The shared cultural, ethnic and geographic ties binding India and the Maldives remain strong. These are likely to check any serious long-term deterioration in relations.

However, managing occasional rifts and tensions will require deft diplomacy going forward. As competition between China and India intensifies across South Asia and the Indian Ocean, small states like the Maldives will come under growing pressure from both sides. Their role as potential swing states between the two Asian giants will continue to grow.

Final Analysis and Outlook

The Maldives’ granting of port access to a Chinese research vessel despite Indian objections represents both a symbolic snub to New Delhi and a precursor of a new competitive regional dynamic taking shape. It indicates Chinese power projection across the Indian Ocean region will face fewer obstacles.

For India, this means coming to grips with a shifting regional balance and finding ways to better leverage its geographic proximity, cultural ties and security presence. But heavy-handed efforts to limit Chinese inroads could backfire. Maintaining regional leadership ultimately requires providing smaller states with political and economic benefits that outweigh engagement with Beijing.

With Sino-Indian strategic rivalry intensifying, the Maldives and other Indian Ocean states will likely continue pursuing maximal autonomy and diversified partnerships. Their ability to play external powers off one another serves their own interests. But it also risks escalating great power tensions in the region.

The port call itself is unlikely to severely rupture New Delhi-Male ties given their strong historical bonds. But managing the relationship will require delicate diplomacy amid the changing geopolitical winds. The recent controversy serves as a harbinger of the complex balancing dynamics that may become more frequent across maritime Asia as Chinese power and ambition continues rising.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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