Strategic Implications of China’s “Research Vessels” in the Indian Ocean

 By Danish Yousuf
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China’s deployment of research vessels in the Indian Ocean has become a source of concern for India. While ostensibly focused on scientific research, they are often perceived as instruments of Beijing’s expanding maritime strategy, which intertwines scientific pursuits with geopolitical ambitions. This article explores the multifaceted roles of these vessels, the strategic objectives behind their deployments, and the broader implications for regional security and international maritime law.

Scientific Endeavours of these Research Vessels

Chinese research vessels conduct a variety of oceanographic surveys, including the measurement of various physical parameters of the ocean like water temperature, salinity, and pressure. These studies are crucial for understanding environmental patterns and marine biology, but they also serve strategic naval purposes. For instance, temperature and salinity affect the density and buoyancy of seawater, which in turn influence ocean currents and climate systems. Similarly, pressure measurements help in studying ocean circulation patterns, which are essential for climate modelling. Understanding the oceanic conditions can improve the operational capabilities of submarines and other naval assets, affecting sonar performance and navigational accuracy. By understanding these environmental conditions, submarines can optimise their routes and improve their stealth capabilities.

These research vessels are involved in seabed mapping and the search for valuable resources like polymetallic nodules. These nodules contain critical materials such as manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt, essential for modern technologies such as batteries and electronics. This activity not only has scientific merit but also has implications for future resource claims in the international seabed areas, which are governed by the International Seabed Authority under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China’s operations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) prominently feature a specialised fleet, including the Yuan Wang 01 and Yuan Wang 02, which focus on oceanographic research. The Da Yang Hao, a marine resource survey vessel, and the Yuan Wang 03, equipped for satellite and ballistic missile tracking, highlight China’s strategic initiatives to monitor regional military activities, particularly Indian missile tests. This was evident when the Xiang Yang Hong 01 was detected off India’s eastern coast, coinciding with India’s announcement of a flight restriction zone over the Bay of Bengal for impending nuclear ballistic missile tests.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable uptick in the presence of Chinese research and fishing vessels in the IOR, with an annual deployment averaging 12–15 ships. These ships are not only equipped with advanced sensors for tasks such as laying buoys and profiling underwater currents but have also been observed operating clandestinely by not broadcasting their locations, a tactic known as “running dark,” particularly noted in Indonesian waters.

Strategic Cable Laying

The strategic deployment of undersea cables by Chinese vessels embodies a significant dual-use technology approach, which bears implications for both global communications infrastructure and military capabilities. These cables are essential for transmitting vast amounts of data across continents, facilitating not only civilian communications but also critical financial transactions and global business operations. These cables could have potential military implications.

Undersea cables, which carry about 99% of the world’s telecommunications data, are vital arteries of the global economy. The physical infrastructure of these cables makes them strategic assets in international communications. Countries that control these cables have not only economic leverage but also a potential informational advantage. China’s Huawei Marine has been involved in building or upgrading nearly 100 submarine cable systems worldwide.

Mapping Rich Fishing Grounds

The presence of Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean is closely linked to China’s fishing industry, which plays a crucial role in its food security strategy. The saying that “fish die of old age in the Indian Ocean” humorously highlights the perceived vastness of marine life in the region, suggesting an underexploited resource that could support extensive fishing operations.

Chinese research vessels in the IOR are actively involved in identifying areas with abundant fish stocks. This not only supports China’s food security goals but also aligns with its broader maritime strategy of establishing a dominant presence in key international waters. Mapping out rich fishing grounds helps in planning long-term commercial exploitation and ensures steady supplies for its domestic markets. China’s increasing dependence on fishing has led to the deployment of trawlers and other fishing vessels to meet the country’s growing demand for seafood. However, the large-scale fishing operations by one of the world’s largest fishing fleets raise significant environmental concerns.

Surveillance and Intelligence Gathering through UUVs

The deployment of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) from these research vessels for surveillance and data collection further complicates the security scenario. UUVs, which include both autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), are used for a variety of purposes, including surveillance, reconnaissance, mine countermeasures, and oceanography.

UUVs are particularly valuable for covert surveillance operations. Their ability to operate discreetly in hostile or politically sensitive environments makes them ideal for gathering intelligence without risking human lives or diplomatic incidents. For instance, UUVs can stealthily approach enemy coastlines to collect data on naval deployments or monitor submarine activities. This capability was highlighted when a Chinese naval UUV was found off the coast of Indonesia in December 2020, raising concerns about China’s surveillance activities in strategic maritime corridors.

Geopolitical Context and Regional Tensions

The docking privileges granted to Chinese vessels by smaller IOR states like Sri Lanka and the Maldives are particularly concerning for India. These activities are part of a broader “String of Pearls” strategy, where China seeks to establish a series of maritime footholds across the Indian Ocean to enhance its strategic reach and secure its energy and trade routes. Hambantota Port, Gwadar Port, and Djibouti Military Base are examples of China’s strategic foothold in the IOR.

The relationships that China builds with smaller regional states through military and economic means could potentially alter the power dynamics and strategic environment in the IOR. These partnerships often come with significant debt burdens for the host countries, leading to concerns about sovereignty and long-term strategic independence. The situation necessitates a delicate balance of power, where regional states must navigate between the economic benefits provided by Chinese investments and maintaining strategic autonomy.

Conclusion

China has positioned research ships to bolster its influence in key geopolitical areas. China employs civilian ships to gather information in crucial strategic areas, including the Indian Ocean. Chinese survey activities in the Indian Ocean, while aiding scientific and commercial endeavours, also serve military purposes, particularly in enhancing submarine operations. The Indian Ocean is key, as China aims to expand its strategic influence beyond its borders. The significance of the underwater environment in this region cannot be overstated for China, with potential submarine missions varying from intelligence gathering to nuclear deterrence patrols.

China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean challenges key regional players like India, which is particularly worrying given Beijing’s history of flouting international norms. In response, some regional partners are re-evaluating their collaborations with China; for example, Sri Lanka, with India’s support, has paused Chinese research vessel dockings for a year to strengthen its research capabilities as an equal partner. Indian diplomacy faces challenges as long as the definition of “maritime research vessels” remains vague and unclear.