Posted on January 3, 2024
Sri Lanka’s government is reported to have told China that it is imposing a one-year moratorium on Chinese research vessels from docking in the country’s ports. The government under pressure from India and the United States had reportedly previously moved to ban the Chinese vessels from conducting deep-sea research in its exclusive economic zone.
The use of Sri Lanka’s ports and waters has been an on-and-off debate through a series of successive governments in the country. Reports are that India, which provides extensive support to Sri Lanka, has repeatedly expressed concerns about the Chinese vessels and their potential impact on security and strategic concerns for the countries.
The Hindustan Times reported on January 1 that the government of Sri Lanka informed China and India of its decision to ban those research vessels from Sri Lanka’s ports. The previous government made a similar move in August 2022 turning away a controversial Chinese satellite tracking vessel, the Yuan Wang 5, only to relent and days later accept the ship for what was called a restocking port visit.
China is rapidly expanding its fleet of vessels which it claims are all used for research purposes. One of the vessels that sparked the current controversy is the Shiyan 6 (4,000 GT) which China refers to as a “comprehensive scientific research vessel.” The ship was commissioned in 2021 and according to Chinese media was designed to carry a 60-member crew remaining at sea for extended voyages. In the fall of 2023, the vessel undertook a trip scheduled to last 80 days covering more than 12,000 nautical miles and involving 28 scientific research projects from 13 research teams onboard, organized by the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology (SCSIO) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Sri Lanka worked with China’s Shiyan 6 in 2023 sparking complaints from India (Chinese government photo)
Sri Lanka permitted the Shiyan 6 to operate in its territories on missions the Chinese said were to make “multidisciplinary observations to obtain a large amount of basic data for revealing the mechanisms by which dynamic processes affect biogeochemical cycles, ecosystems and sedimentary processes in the region.” India protested when the Sri Lanka maritime agency conducted surveys with the Chinese and permitted the vessel to dock in its port.
The issue however came to the forefront with news that another Chinese research vessel, the Xiang Yang Hong 3 (4,800 GT), was scheduled to make a stop in Sri Lanka early this month. The ship is reported to be outbound from China for a deep-water research trip lasting up to five months in the Indian Ocean. This vessel has a checkered history with Indonesia in 2021 accusing the ship of going dark by turning off its AIS signal while operating in its waters. The maritime agency Bakamla said it intercepted the vessel in the Sunda Strait with its AIS signal turned off.
India has sought to limit Chinese Research in the Indian Ocean while the United States believes many of the ships are used for spying. Reports are that since 2019, China has deployed a total of 48 research vessels in the Indian Ocean. Several of the ships feature multiple dish antennas which Western analysts believe are for tracking and listening in on satellites and supporting intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Last year alone, China is reported to have deployed 25 of those research and tracking ships in the Indian Ocean region.