The expected arrival of a Chinese research ship in the Maldives this week has escalated tensions between Beijing, Delhi and Male.
Officially, the vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3 is there to “make a port call, for rotation of personnel and replenishment”. In short, an entirely innocuous stop.
But that is not how it is being seen in Delhi. Instead, the ship’s presence is at the very least a diplomatic snub. At worst, some fear, it could be a mission to collect data which could – at a later date – be used by the Chinese military in submarine operations.
“The Chinese ships carry out scientific research work in the Indian ocean. Its activities on the high sea are entirely legitimate,” claim Zhou Bo, a former People’s Liberation Army Senior Colonel.
“Sometimes the ships need replenishment – like fuel, food and water. So, they berth in a third country port, which is normal. So, the Indian government shouldn’t make any fuss about it. Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean,” asserted Mr Zhou, who is now with the Tsinghua university in Beijing.
But this is not the first time that China – which competes for for influence with Delhi in the Indian Ocean amid a long-standing dispute over their Himalayan border – has sent one of its ships sailing close to Indian waters.
Two Chinese naval submarines made a port call to Colombo in 2014 and two Chinese research vessels visited Sri Lanka, close to the tip of southern India, in the past two years, much to the displeasure of India.
The arrivals came as China, which has loaned billions of dollars to Colombo, made significant inroads into Sri Lanka.
The research ship, Xiang Yang Hong 3, had in fact originally planned to visit Colombo for replenishment before proceeding to the Maldives. But that has been shelved for now, according to Tharaka Balasuriya, the junior foreign minister of Sri Lanka.
However, Colombo’s decision to stop the research vessels is being seen as a response to India’s strong objections to such visits by Chinese vessels. India’s objections however, have made little difference in the Maldives.
The Maldives, consisting of about 1,200 coral islands and atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean, has long been under India’s sphere of influence. But Mohamed Muizzu, who took over as president in November and is regarded as pro-China, wants to change that equation.