What Swirls Beneath Research Activity of Chinese Ships in the Indian Ocean?
On October 31, Sri Lankan and Chinese researchers on board the Chinese research vessel Shi Yan 6, which recently docked at Colombo port in Sri Lanka, began two days of “marine scientific” research off the Sri Lankan coast.
The docking of the Shi Yan 6 a few days earlier had stirred strong responses from India and the United States. The same thing happened last year when another Chinese ship, the Yuan Wang 5, had docked at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Sabry acknowledged that the Sri Lankan government had come under pressure from India and other parties to halt the arrival of the Chinese research vessel. He emphasized the complexity of the situation due to geopolitics and the need to be prepared to handle these pressures while maintaining good relations with all involved parties.
Over the past 15 years, several Chinese research vessels and warships have visited Sri Lankan ports with limited media attention. It is only over the last couple of years that Chinese vessels arriving in Sri Lanka have received heightened scrutiny.
According to Dr. Nilanthi Samaranayake, a visiting expert at the United States Institute of Peace, the ongoing border conflict between China and India since 2020 has increased New Delhi’s concerns about China’s presence in the Indian Ocean. Recent visits of Chinese vessels to Lankan ports have garnered more attention, as they are closely monitored by the Indian Navy.
“The Chinese ships that have visited over the past year are different types with different missions and are closely tracked by the Indian Navy. The persistent border conflict between China and India since 2020 has elevated New Delhi’s threat perceptions of China’s presence in the Indian Ocean. This factor, combined with greater access to ship tracking data, has resulted in a situation where every visiting Chinese ship is likely to receive media attention for the foreseeable future,” Samaranayake said.
For most of the 20th century, the Indian Ocean has, at most, held secondary importance in the strategic considerations of Chinese leaders. China did assign a certain level of importance to India, primarily due to the longstanding border dispute that led to a short but significant war in 1962, India’s development of long-range missiles, and its acquisition of nuclear capabilities. For a long time, China lacked the naval capacity to project power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and had not clearly articulated such ambitions in its public strategic documents. Additionally, the necessary military assets were not readily available.
However, significant changes have taken place in recent decades.
Increasing Chinese engagement in the IOR has raised fears among American and Indian strategists that China’s growing naval presence, together with control of strategically located ports in the region, might provide Beijing with significant military advantages far from its shores.
Indian observers are nervously eyeing China’s increasingly sophisticated military capabilities and noted its gradually expanding mission sets that extend beyond the waters of the western Pacific. American strategists, increasingly focused on a multifront competition with a rising China, are warning the world about China’s so-called debt-trap diplomacy. Both India and the United States insist that small countries within the region will not be able to navigate China’s political influence while retaining their freedom of maneuver.
From Indian and U.S. perspectives, these concerns are entirely reasonable. International relations scholars from the realist school had long predicted that India would be an important pillar in the balancing coalition that the United States would try to establish to contain China. And yet, most conclusions are derived not from present-day assessments of China’s influence, access, or capabilities in the region — all of which remain modest — but from future projections of its role in the wider IOR.
According to a 2020 Brookings Institution report, there are five “meta-mission objectives” that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might pursue in principle, and to varying degrees is already pursuing, roughly ordered from those that are the most notionally non-threatening to those that are the most ambitious and potentially troubling to the United States, and to its close partners in the region such as India.
1) conducting non-combat activities focused on protecting Chinese citizens and investments, and bolstering China’s soft power influence; 2) undertaking counterterrorism activities, unilaterally or with partners, against organizations that threaten China; 3) collecting intelligence in support of operational requirements, and against key adversaries; 4) supporting efforts aimed at coercive diplomacy toward small countries in the region; and 5) enabling effective operations in a conflict environment, namely the ability to deter, mitigate, or terminate a state-sponsored interdiction of trade bound for China, and to meaningfully hold at risk U.S. or Indian assets in the event of a wider conflict.
Of these, the third meta-mission objective seems to have caught the imagination of policymakers, strategists, and media outlets. Researchers affiliated with U.S. defense institutions have been raising concerns, dating back at least to 2017, regarding the potential significant implications of these vessels for U.S. national security.
In a 2018 report authored by Ryan D. Martinson and Peter A. Dutton of the U.S. Naval War College, it was noted that approximately 5 to 10 Chinese scientific research vessels were operating outside of Chinese jurisdictional waters, particularly in areas of the Indo-Pacific deemed strategically important. The authors also highlighted that most of the Chinese research vessels commissioned since 2012 are multifunctional research platforms equipped to conduct a wide array of research activities. These vessels primarily serve as hosts for various instruments, sensors, and equipment used for the collection of oceanic and atmospheric data.
The authors claim that certain sensors are affixed to these research vessels. For instance, many of these ships feature “science masts” at the bow, designed for the collection of meteorological data. Additionally, all these vessels are equipped with various sensors attached to their hulls. More modern vessels, such as the Kexue, are outfitted with “gondolas,” retractable structures located beneath the ship to prevent the interference of bubbles with data measurements. Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCPs) are employed to send sound waves into the water column, with the returning echoes providing information about the direction and speed of undersea currents. Multi-beam echo sounders utilize sound pulses to achieve precise measurements of ocean depth, which can then be used to ascertain the contours, or bathymetry, of the seabed.
Some of these sensors are towed behind the ship. For example, the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) research vessel Shiyan 1 boasts a twin-hull (SWATH) design, ensuring improved stability when towing its acoustic array. Several of these vessels can tow streamers utilized for seismic surveys, directing sound waves into the seabed. The strength and pattern of the echoes that return are then used to determine the geological composition of the subsoil, including the potential presence of oil and gas deposits.
China’s deployment of oceanographic research ships and related platforms in distant ocean areas is part of a massive program to collect oceanic data. What is the ultimate purpose of this collection effort?
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, a senior fellow at The Millennium Project in the United States, told The Diplomat that the Shi Yan 6 research vessel specializes in geophysical exploration, a capability that holds potential implications for submarine warfare.
Abeyagoonasekera raised two primary concerns: First, the apprehension that China could access critical data regarding seabed resources in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the context of intensified global competition for minerals and energy resources. Second, he highlighted the collection of ocean and seabed data by vessels like the Shi Yan 6, which could be used in the future for strategic naval planning, especially relating to submarine warfare.
These concerns are amplified by the perception that Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, once seen as a friend of India and the West, has moved closer to China, as evident in recent agreements such as the one with Huawei to digitize Sri Lankan schools, a deal that was rejected during Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency.
This shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is causing concern in India, Abeyagoonasekera pointed out.
Although the era of unipolarity has passed, the nature of the international system dictates that the United States will not relinquish its dominant position in Asia without contesting China, the rising power. It has formed the Quad alliance to counter China.
From the realist lens, Sri Lanka’s reassurances may not fully alleviate the suspicions harbored by the containment alliance regarding the country’s relationship with China. However, by conducting its activities with China in a more transparent manner, Sri Lanka can potentially persuade at least some sections of the containment alliance that its ties with China do not pose an immediate threat.
Samaranayake suggests that given its strategic location along the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and its historical practice of allowing ship visits from extra-regional powers, Sri Lanka should promptly disclose the extensively discussed Standard Operating Procedure for foreign vessels entering Sri Lankan waters.