Ship boat

What China wanted to achieve with the docking of a spy ship in Sri Lanka

Last month, the docking of the Chinese intelligence collection vessel Yuan Wang-5 in Sri Lanka caused much concern in India.

However, the debate this episode has sparked, both in the popular media and in policy circles, has largely been limited to what it means for Indo-Sri Lankan relations, how Colombo “betrayed” New Delhi and why the India must rethink its economic aid as ‘ingratitude’. “Sri Lanka.

An unbiased debate on how this episode should shape India’s response to the crisis in Sri Lanka in the future will be helpful.

But that won’t answer a crucial question – what was China trying to achieve or signal with the docking of the spy ship at Humbantota.

For this, the deployment of the ship must be placed in the context of China’s Indian Ocean strategy and its actions in the region in recent years.

Over the past decade, China’s massive investments in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) have enabled it to expand its presence in the littoral states.

He has created stakes with investments in ports and other infrastructure in the region, from Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the west to Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique in the east, and in the many islands that dot the vast ocean between.

In East Africa, where it also launched its first foreign military base at Djaboti in 2017, China has investments in at least 17 ports, giving it a strong presence in the western Indian Ocean.

Similarly, closer to India, China has invested in infrastructure, including ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar, and leased back those it built in the first two.

It is currently building a base in Cambodia, on the edge of the eastern Indian Ocean, and the likelihood of another base on the eastern coast of Africa within the next five to ten years cannot be ruled out.

In doing so, China has created dependency and shown its willingness to arm it, as we have seen in the case of Sri Lanka very recently, but also of the Maldives in the recent past.

With the relentless expansion of its presence, China has built considerable political influence and economic leverage in the region.

This has reduced India’s room for maneuver and intensified the bitter struggle for influence, visible not only in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, but also elsewhere in the region – most recently in Mauritius.

As the docking of Yuan Wang-5 in Sri Lanka despite India’s concerns demonstrated, Beijing now has the capacity, however limited, to achieve the results it wants.

The increased presence of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the IOR has kept pace with China’s growing investment and influence.

China began sending anti-piracy missions to the Indian Ocean in 2008. Since 2013, PLAN incursions have grown to include the deployment of submarines, and a Chinese submarine accompanied by escort ships is deployed to the Indian Ocean twice a year.

It’s no surprise that a PLAN Yuan-class diesel-electric boat found itself in the area at the height of the standoff with India in Bhutan’s Doklam in 2017. PLAN submarines, including nuclear-powered boats, or SSNs, have docked in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in recent years.

Additionally, recent developments at the Chinese base in Djibouti suggest the facility is being readied to accommodate submarines and aircraft carriers.

The upcoming Chinese base in Cambodia will allow PLAN to maintain a greater presence in the eastern Indian Ocean, including the seas near India – the Bay of Bengal, the only part of the Indian Ocean in where an Indian ballistic missile submarine or SSBN can currently launch a nuclear strike against China and the adjacent Andaman Sea.

At the same time, China has constantly deployed survey or research vessels capable of bathymetric studies – mapping the depth of the ocean floor, studying the ocean environment and collecting hydrological data.

For example, in January 2021, two Chinese survey vessels were spotted in the Indian Ocean, south of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, surveying large swaths of the ocean around the Ninety East Ridge in a lawn mower pattern. .

This unbroken expanse of relatively shallow water, where submarines are likely to be detected, is close to Indian Ocean choke points such as the Sunda and Lombok Straits, which warships and Chinese submarines use to enter the Indian Ocean.

In September 2019, India spotted a Chinese research vessel in its exclusive economic zone around the islands, just west of Port Blair, operating without permission, and kicked it out.

Although there are no restrictions on the conduct of marine scientific research in international waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, states are required to seek authorization at least six months from the advance for marine scientific research in another country’s EEZ or continental shelf.

In 2017, Admiral Sunil Lamba, the Navy Chief of Staff at the time, said there were about six to eight “PLA Navy ships” in the Indian Ocean at the time. at one time, including three to four “satellite surveillance and control vessels”. “

Since 2020, the Indian Navy has “monitored” at least 53 “satellite and ballistic missile tracking vessels” in the Indian Ocean.

Data collected by Chinese research vessels in the Indian Ocean can be used both to operate submarines in the region and to detect enemy submarine platforms deployed in those waters.

By investing in port infrastructure, creating economic leverage and influence, deploying warships to the region and collecting bathymetric data, China is trying to put in place the building blocks for an increased PLAN presence in the world. Indian Ocean over the next decade.

Investing in ports in the region helps create facilities that PLAN could use in the future.

Not all of China’s investments will result in basic deals, but even a small number of such facilities would significantly improve China’s ability to project energy.

This will allow PLAN to support deployments in the IOR, not only in times of peace but also, to some extent, during times of heightened tension or conflict.

The deployment of naval platforms, including nuclear-powered submarines, gives the PLAN experience in operating in remote areas of territorial waters. The study of the seabed provides essential data for submarine operations, including the deployment of submarines in the seas near India.

Considered in this context, the docking of Yuan Wang-5 at Hambantota, which China took over from Sri Lanka under a 99-year lease, appears to be an attempt to set a precedent as PLAN attempts to carve out , gradually, more space for itself in the Indian Ocean region.