China "Research Vessel" Set To Dock In Male Amid India-Maldives Tensions

Amid strained ties between India and the Maldives, a Chinese vessel has entered the waters of the island nation and is set to dock in its capital Male. The 4,300-ton Xiang Yang Hong 03 is classified as a 'research' vessel mapping the floor of Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy has pointed out that mapping of the seabed can enable submarine operations in the geopolitically-significant Indian Ocean Region.

The vessel belongs to the Third Institute of Oceanography in China. Its purported objectives are seabed mapping and mineral exploration, among others. The vessel sailed from Sanya in China over a month ago and is likely to dock in Male shortly.

The Maldives last month said the Chinese ship will not conduct any research in its waters but will only come for "rotation and replenishment". India's concerns, however, are not limited to the waters of the Maldives. They extend to the other areas this vessel is operating in. This ship has been moving in the waters between the Maldives and Sri Lanka in a zigzag manner.

Navy Chief Admiral R Kumar told NDTV in an interview last week that charting underwater regions ''may have military applications as well in terms of the ability to deploy submarines or operate submarines.''

New Delhi is watching the ship's movements with concerns against the backdrop of China's expanding influence in the Indian Ocean Region and the frost in India-Maldives relations.

New Delhi's ties with Male have touched an all-time low since Mohamed Muizzu took over as President late last year. Soon after his election, Muizzu moved to remove Indian troops stationed in the Maldives for humanitarian activities and medical evacuation. He also visited Beijing and met Chinese President Xi Jinping. Once back, the Maldives president said, "We may be small, but this doesn't give them the licence to bully us." The remark, which did not name any country, was seen as a swipe at India.

According to reports, the two sides had reached an agreement on withdrawing Indian troops by May. The External Affairs Ministry has said they had "agreed on a set of mutually workable solutions to enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms" that provide humanitarian services to the Maldives. The soldiers, reports said, would now be replaced by civilians.

The Maldives President's anti-India stand has also led to domestic challenges. Several Maldivian opposition leaders have criticised the island nation's government over his pro-China policy.

Earlier, asked about the strained ties between India and the Maldives, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar had said neighbours need each other. "History and geography are very powerful forces. There is no escape from that," he said.