NEW DELHI, Jan 23: In yet another indication of its shift towards China away from India, the Maldives government on Tuesday confirmed that a ship from “friendly country,” the Chinese “research vessel” the Xian Yang Hong 03, seen as a spy ship mapping the Indian Ocean floor for military purposes – would dock at capital Male early next month.
It claimed that the ship would not conduct any “research” while in Maldivian waters, noting it was asked for clearance to “… for rotation and replenishment.” “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…”the island nation said.
“Such calls enhance bilateral ties between the Maldives and partner countries, and also demonstrate the centuries-old tradition of welcoming vessels from friendly countries…” the Maldives said.
The phrase “welcoming vessels from friendly countries” in the Maldives government statement is being seen as a direct attack on India and further evidence of Male’s pivot away from New Delhi and towards Beijing. The move to China is a potentially significant geopolitical and military shift in the Indian Ocean Region.
The 4,300-ton Xiang Yang Hong 03 is classified as a ‘research’ vessel mapping the floor of the Indian Ocean. Research exercises like this can provide valuable data that can help anticipate natural disasters like underwater earthquakes, and mitigate otherwise disastrous impacts. Mapping also enables China to navigate these waters in the future using submarines and submersible drones.
The Maldives giving the Chinese ship permission to dock comes as Male and New Delhi are locked in a tense stand-off over three Maldivian ministers’ critical comments this month about Prime Minister Narendra Modi which sparked a row in India and pushback at home for President Mohamed Muizzu.
Although the three ministers were suspended, and the Maldives Foreign Ministry made conciliatory statements, the fact is Mr Muizzu – elected on the back of an “India Out” campaign – has just returned from a State visit to China. On this visit he met Xi Jinping and signed 20 “key” agreements, and announced elevation of the two countries’ ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation Partnership.
The Maldives leader also called on China to send more tourists to his nation – a message seen as a direct snub to India, which has topped the list of number of foreign tourists visiting the island nation in the post-Covid era, a sector that is one of the major source of Maldives’ economy.
But perhaps most significant is the ‘ diktat that Indian soldiers and military assets, stationed there for over three decades, withdraw by March 15. In a brief statement the President’s office said, “Indian military personnel cannot stay in the Maldives. This is the policy of President Dr Mohamed Muizzu…”
Confirmation of growing bonhomie between China and the Maldives came as Mr Muizzu’s Beijing visit concluded, with the Chinese side saying it supports the Maldives in “upholding its national sovereignty.” China also said it “opposed external interference” – it did not name India in this context – in the internal affairs of the Maldives, which is one of the major beneficiaries of India’s Neighbourhood First policy.