- By Anbarasan Ethirajan
- BBC News
The expected arrival of a Chinese research vessel in the Maldives this week has heightened tensions between Beijing, Delhi and Malé.
Officially, the ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 is there to “call at a port, for personnel rotation and resupply.” In short, a completely harmless stop.
But that is not how it is seen in Delhi. Instead, the ship's presence is at least a diplomatic snub. In a worst-case scenario, some fear, it could be a mission to collect data that the Chinese military could use in submarine operations at a later date.
However, China experts shrugged off their concerns.
“The Chinese ships are conducting scientific research in the Indian Ocean. Their activities on the high seas are completely legitimate,” Zhou Bo, a former colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, told the BBC.
“Sometimes the ships need supplies – such as fuel, food and water. Therefore they dock in a third country port, which is normal. So the Indian government should not make a fuss about it. The Indian Ocean is not India's ocean,” claimed Mr Zhou, who is now at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
But this is not the first time that China – which competes with Delhi for influence in the Indian Ocean and has a long-standing dispute over its Himalayan border – has sent one of its ships near Indian waters.
Two Chinese naval submarines docked in Colombo in 2014 and two Chinese research vessels visited Sri Lanka near the southern tip of southern India in the past two years, much to India's dismay.
The arrivals came as China, which had lent billions of dollars to Colombo, made significant advances in Sri Lanka.
The research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 3 had originally planned to visit Colombo for resupply before continuing on to the Maldives. But that has been put on hold for now, said Tharaka Balasuriya, Sri Lanka's deputy foreign minister.
“In this one year we want to develop our technology and our expertise so that we can participate equally in these research activities,” he told the BBC.
However, Colombo's decision to stop the research vessels is seen as a response to India's strong objections to such visits by Chinese ships.
However, India's objections have made little difference in the Maldives.
The Maldives, consisting of around 1,200 coral islands and atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean, have long been under India's sphere of influence. But Mohamed Muizzu, who took over as president in November and is considered pro-China, wants to change that.
He campaigned on the India Out platform, calling on Delhi to withdraw about 80 Indian military personnel stationed on the island. India says the troops are in the island nation to maintain and operate three reconnaissance and rescue aircraft that Delhi donated years ago.
The Maldivian government has given Delhi an ultimatum to withdraw its troops by March 15, two days before the country's general elections.
After talks in Delhi last week, the Maldivian foreign ministry said India had agreed to “replace the military personnel” and that the first batch would leave by March 10 and the rest by the second week of May.
In December, Mr. Muizzu's government also announced this would not extend a hydrographic survey agreement with India signed by the previous government to map the seabed in Maldivian territorial waters.
In fact, relations have deteriorated so much that none of the senior leaders of the Maldivian government visited a recent event organized by the Indian High Commission in Male to mark the 75th Republic Day of India.
China, meanwhile, rolled out the red carpet for Mr Muizzu when he made a five-day state visit to Beijing last month. Since that trip, senior Chinese officials have visited the Maldives. Mr. Muizzu has also announced several Chinese-funded infrastructure projects.
Male's sudden change in position towards China has raised concerns in Delhi as the country attaches strategic importance to the island nation.
China, with its rapidly growing naval forces, also wants access to such a strategically important location – which India wants to prevent.
“Of course the Maldives is very important; they are the southern oceanic flank of India,” Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign minister, told the BBC.
“Just as we had serious reservations about what happened in Sri Lanka, we will also have serious reservations about what might happen in the Maldives,” Mr Saran said.
But it is not just Delhi that is worried about its relationship with Male.
The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and others have urged Mr. Muizzu's government to correct course, saying it is not in the country's interest to anger a giant neighbor like India. Last week the MDP said There was even talk of impeachment proceedings against Mr Muizzu.
As a small island nation, the Maldives relies on India for most of its food, infrastructure development and technological advancements. Many Maldivians travel to India for medical treatment.
“Most people here think that the government has taken the hostility against India a little too far and that it is completely unnecessary,” Aik Ahmed Easa, a lawyer in Male who belongs to the opposition MDP, told the BBC.
“The Maldives is a small country. But we are in a dangerous phase where we are caught in the middle of the rivalry of the Asian superpowers,” he said.
The Maldivian president's office and foreign minister did not respond to requests for comment.
China has greater strategic ambitions and is likely to send more ships to the Indian Ocean region for oceanographic research or to protect its commercial interests, experts say. For India, the challenge will be to counter Beijing's growing influence in an area that Delhi perceives as its backyard.
Mr. Zhou says Chinese aircraft carriers and their supply ships will eventually reach the Indian Ocean. If India stops replenishing supplies for these ships in a third country – such as Sri Lanka – Beijing will be “angry”, he says.
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