The presence of Chinese research vessels in the Indian Ocean raises security concerns and Sri Lanka finds itself in a delicate position between global superpowers

In recent weeks, Sri Lanka has found itself at the centre of an international dispute involving a Chinese vessel named Shi Yan Six, which China claims is a research vessel, but the world suspects of having ulterior motives.

Arrival of Shi Yan 6

Shi Yan Six, a Chinese vessel, recently docked in Colombo, leading to widespread speculation about its purpose. While China insists that the vessel is on a scientific mission, both India and US raised objections before its arrival. India and US had been suspicious of the ship’s stop in Sri Lanka for a long time. The Sri Lankan government initially delayed the ship’s visit. However, last month, President Ranil Wickremesinghe visited China to attend the BRI Summit and a week later, Shi Yan Six docked in Sri Lanka.

Changing Plans

Initially, Colombo stated that the ship’s visit was to restock and replenish supplies. However, once the ship docked its plans seemed to change and it expressed a desire to conduct research. Sri Lankan officials became part of this research exercise, according to local reports.

Local press reports suggest that the Chinese ship is conducting “marine scientific research”, and experts from Sri Lanka are actively involved turning it into a joint research exercise. Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry announced that the ship would be allowed to conduct research granting a 48-hour window for the mission. This decision appears to be a concession to China’s demands. Sri Lanka finds itself in a precarious position attempting to balance its diplomatic relationships and ensure the satisfaction of both China and neighbouring India. The 48-hour window for the research vessel represents a compromise, signalling Sri Lanka’s willingness to cooperate with China while reassuring India of its vigilance.

India’s Concerns

India’s apprehensions about Chinese research vessels in the region are not unfounded. In the past 14 months, two Chinese vessels have visited Sri Lanka, both under suspicion of spying. These vessels possess significant capabilities including the ability to track and collect electronic signals. One of the concerns associated with these research vessels is their capability to conduct seabed surveys, which can have implications for submarine operations.

Indian Navy’s Response

Admiral R Hari Kumar, the chief of the Indian Navy, has expressed concerns about such research visits deeming them a challenge. He highlighted the potential threat these ships pose to India’s national interests and the need for increased regional surveillance.

“We are keeping a very close watch in the Indian Ocean Region.. We put lot of effort on surveillance, on maritime domain awareness… Our effort is to know who is present and what are they up to on a 24×7 basis. That is our job and we deploy aircraft, UAVs, ships, submarines,” Admiral Kumar said in a message.

The presence of Chinese research vessels in the Indian Ocean raises security concerns and Sri Lanka finds itself in a delicate position between global superpowers. India is closely monitoring these developments and urging regional cooperation to ensure the safety and security of the Indian Ocean. Neighbouring nations including Sri Lanka should be prepared for stronger pushback in the face of future visits by Chinese research vessels as the international community remains cautious about their true intentions in the region.