After August, the presence of another Chinese spy ship in the Indian Ocean is disturbing New Delhi, with Yuan Wang 6, a tracking ship, carrying the baton of espionage from Yuan Wang 5, the previous spy ship that had reached the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. Yuan Wang 6 is all set to conduct ballistic missile tests from the geostrategic Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.
Spotted late last week in Bali, the 22,000-tonne Yuan Wang 6 of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is capable of tracking long-range ballistic missile trajectories and satellite launches. The Indian Navy has made it clear that it will not allow the Chinese spy ship to enter the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles into the sea. In 2019, Indian Navy warships had chased away a suspected Chinese spy vessel, Shi Yan 1, doing ‘research’ activity close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
China uses the Yuan Wang class of ships to track satellites and intercontinental ballistic missile launches. While China officially treats its spy ships and military vessels differently, that is hardly a serious distinction for the communist country that has a record of using even ‘research vessels’ for military purposes.
Why Chinese manoeuvre on sea is dangerous: Geopolitics of Xi
Chinese spy ships have been on the tow on the Indian Ocean since the time India’s northern neighbour began re-asserting its national and maritime security interests in the region under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, escalating the situation back to that in the Mao Zedong era. The deployment of the Yuan Wang class of ships underscores Beijing’s scant regard for peace in international waters.
On its part, China may say its target is not India but the US, but the CPC think tanks do consider India a major regional challenge, especially on the Indian Ocean where its activities include intelligence gathering, information surveys and space tracking.
China argues it must protect its geo-economic architecture including its controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to which it had invited several nations among which few responded positively. China has several port-based geostrategic interests in the Bay of Bengal. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is known to patrol the Indian Ocean as part of Beijing’s Far Seas Protection strategy.
China has revised its maritime doctrine from Near Seas Defence to Far Seas Protection. Routine patrols are undertaken with the excuse of anti-piracy missions, the Chinese right to which India cannot deny, more so because China has some authentic missions in the western Indian Ocean. However, Chinese interests in piracy-free areas are suspicious, as rightly perceived as a non-traditional security threat by India.
The Sri Lankan regime is unreliable, parts of Chinese assertions are genuine and global watchdogs lack teeth
The situation is precarious also because President Ranil Wickremesinghe had reneged on his word to New Delhi in August when the advancing of Yuan Wang 5 was put on hold and then allowed to visit the China-owned Hambantota port of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka also witnessed Chinese submarine deployment from the discreet Hainan Island. Yuan Wang 5 is a dual-use ship with the capability to track satellites, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It has 400 crew members and advanced equipment. This has been indicative of a larger Chinese strategy even if China claims that its vessels mean no harm and have a rite of passage through international waters.
India is not the only country wary of such naval manoeuvres by China, as several Asean countries had voiced their concern when in January 2021, a Chinese survey ship Xiang Yang Hong 03 was operating in the Indian Ocean.
China even uses fishing vessels for spying on Indian assets in and around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that serve India’s maritime security, as it is located in the area of merger of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, a part of the latter beyond the Indian boundary of 12 nautical miles from the shores sufficing as an international trade route. The Andamans offer India much geostrategic heft amid a diverse array of threats and challenges in the maritime domain.
The Chinese ‘commitment’ to the freedom of the seas hardly impresses India, as the PLAN’s activities in the Indian Ocean, especially where its nuclear-powered submarines are involved are dubious. Leaving the issue to be addressed by India all on its own, international law is ill-equipped to deal with apparently reasonable Chinese ships surveying international waters and defending the interests of the communist giant.
The PLAN presence in the IOR has been a growing concern for India. Some time ago, the Indian Navy’s maritime long-range surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft P 8I had detected as many as seven Chinese Navy warships around the Indian Ocean.
Indian military planners say China has a long-term strategy to operate in the IOR. It has set up a submarine base in Bangladesh in return for two submarines given to Dhaka. China has also provided an old submarine to Myanmar while eight submarines are being given to Pakistan.
China is building more research ships for ‘spying’ activity under the garb of research. India has only INS Dhruv in the category, which is used to monitor missile firings. Commodore Singh said the movement of Chinese spy vessels in the IOR was expected to be a regular feature now.
The situation calls for more tact by India in dealing with consternations in the Indian Ocean. Being the only credible deterrent to stand up to an expansionist China, India has no option but to face the ‘Chinese spy ship challenge’ affront.
Japan has evinced interest in making a base on the islands, but India has not accepted the proposal yet.
How India is reacting
The media reported early this week that Indian military planners were working out fresh dates for user trials of the Agni series nuclear-capable ballistic missile, scheduled for 10-11 November — amid the Indian Navy’s close watch on the movement of Yuan Wang 6 in the Indian Ocean region (IOR).
Submariner Commodore Anil Jai Singh (retd) says the Chinese vessels in the IOR are technically not warships, falling in the category of surveyor ships. India cannot do much about it unless the ships do something overtly hostile, he says. “If the vessels stay in the high seas, that’s everybody’s territory. But we need to monitor their activity. Since these are not warships, technically they have the right to venture into EEZs too,” Commodore Singh told India Today.
Yuan Wang 6 moved suspiciously barely 20 days after India conducted the test firing of a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) from INS Arihant, its first indigenous nuclear submarine. The projectile accurately hit the target area in the Bay of Bengal.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that the SLBM launch was “significant” to prove crew competency and “validate” ballistic missiles which are a “key element of India’s nuclear deterrence capability”. India is now only the sixth country with the capability to conduct nuclear strikes and counterstrikes on land, sea and air. The other countries are the US, Russia, the UK, France and China.
On 2 November, India successfully conducted the test flight of the Phase-II ballistic missile defence (BMD) interceptor AD-1 missile from the APJ Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast. Next, there will be a trial of the Agni series nuclear-capable ballistic missile on 10-11 November.