Controversial Chinese Research Vessel Schedules Port Call in Maldives

Chinese research sip
Xaing Yang Hong 3 which is due in the Maldives has created controversies in Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the past (Bakamla file photo)

Published Jan 26, 2024 8:47 PM by The Maritime Executive


Tensions are being sparked in the Indian Ocean region with news that a Chinese marine research vessel, Xiang Yang Hong 03, will be making a visit to the Maldives starting next week. News of the visit has raised questions if the new president of the Maldives, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu, is attempting to form closer ties with China and draw away from the relationship with India fostered by his predecessor.

The Chinese research vessel is part of an ongoing controversy across the region. Officially it is reported to be conducting distant water and deep sea surveys on behalf of China’s Pilot Ocean Laboratory. Built in 2016, the vessel is part of a fleet of ocean research vessels launched by China and since 2019 has been reported to be conducting scientific research. Analysts however note that China appears to be blurring the lines between scientific and military research.

Tracking services are reporting the vessel recently entered the Indian Ocean. They said it had transited the Sunda Strait in Indonesia and was heading toward the Maldives. The vessel which approximately is 4,800 tons had been said to be planning a stop in Sri Lanka around the beginning of the year. However, reports surfaced that Sri Lanka informed China it was imposing a one-year moratorium on Chinese research vessels from docking in the country’s ports.

Sri Lanka has been under pressure from the United States and India to curb the activities of the Chinese in the region. India has adamantly opposed the increase of activities by Chinese research vessels in all parts of the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives President just concluded a diplomatic visit with China reporting that they had reached terms on a broad range of agreements. This was followed by the announcement on January 23 that the Chinese government had requested the necessary clearances from the government of the Maldives for a port call by the Xiang Yang Hong 03

The vessel is officially reported to have the capabilities to conduct studies ranging from the salinity of the ocean to underwater mineral exploration, underwater and environmental studies. It is believed it is also used for mapping surveys. 

The government of the Maldives in December reported it would be terminating a hydrography agreement with India for the water of the Maldives. The official position is that the information belongs to the Maldives and they do not want to have international studies, but many questioned if it was another sign of a cooling of the relationship between the new government and India, which had been pursued by the previous president. The agreement with India requires six months’ notice for termination which is now scheduled for June 2024.

“The Maldives has always been a welcoming destination for vessels of friendly countries and continues to host both civilian and military vessels making port calls for peaceful purposes. Such port calls not only enhance bilateral ties between the Maldives and its partner countries, but also demonstrate the centuries old tradition of the Maldivian people welcoming vessels from friendly countries,” the government wrote in an official statement addressing the media reports over the arrival of the Chinese ship.

The government of the Maldives said the clearances sought were to make a port call for rotation of personnel and replenishment. They emphasized the vessel would not be conducting any research while in the Maldivian waters. The Xiang Yang Hong 03 is due to arrive in the capital of the country, Malé, on January 30. It is unclear how long it will be staying.