Chinese spy ships cause concern in India
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) recent deployment of two spy vessels in the Indian Ocean has raised concerns in New Delhi among government officials and analysts about Beijing’s intentions.
The Yuan Wang 5 docked in Sri Lanka in August 2022 despite Indian protests spurred by worries about Beijing’s influence in Colombo. In early November, New Delhi postponed a test launch of a ballistic missile system when the Yuan Wang 6 entered the Indian Ocean after traversing the Lombok Strait in Indonesia. (Pictured: The Yuan Wang 5 arrives at Hambantota port in August 2022 amid conjecture about the spy ship’s mission in Sri Lanka.)
Each of the Chinese tracking ships is equipped with four rotating radar dishes, a senior Indian Navy officer told FORUM. The 222-meter-long, 25,000-metric-ton vessels can track ballistic missiles and satellites and gather signal intelligence.
“The entry of Yuan Wang VI into Indian Ocean waters near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in early November delayed the testing of India’s own missile in the area,” Prateek Joshi, a researcher at New Delhi’s International Centre for Peace Studies, told FORUM.
Originally scheduled for early November, according to reports, the test of India’s BrahMos extended-range supersonic cruise missile occurred on the islands later that month.
Both spy vessels have a radar range of 750 kilometers, the Indian Navy officer said. Many strategic assets in southern India were within the scope of the Yuan Wang 5’s surveillance while it was docked at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port for a week in mid-August, he added, including a missile testing facility in Chandipur, Odisha; the Indian Satellite Research Organization at Sriharikota; the Kalpakkam and Kudankulam nuclear power plants; and the Southern Naval Command in Kochi.
Hambantota is operated by a Chinese state-owned enterprise, Joshi said, and the Indian government worries the commercial port could accommodate PLA Navy warships. New Delhi’s protests delayed Yuan Wang 5’s docking for five days, with the ship’s captain claiming it was there to replenish on a peaceful mission and to strengthen communication between the People’s Republic of China and Sri Lanka on space research and technology.
“Publicly, India’s Foreign Office and the Navy have downplayed any immediate threat from Chinese spy ships and focused more on India’s readiness to foresee such threats,” Joshi said. “However, privately, India has been conveying its apprehensions to the concerned governments.”
India’s unease is compounded by its military’s occasional skirmishes with Chinese forces along the nations’ border, he said.
Indian defense analyst Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Navy commodore, told FORUM the visits by the PLA Navy spy ships are a cause for concern, but not necessarily an urgent one.
“After the 20th [Chinese Communist] Party Congress, China’s emphasis on transborder capabilities by bolstering its navy and air force have come to light,” he said. “As far as Taiwan and the South China Sea are concerned, the PLA Navy would acquire a greater role soon. The heating up of the Taiwan area may push the Indian Ocean Region to a low priority region but not out of focus.”
Mandeep Singh is a FORUM contributor reporting from New Delhi, India.
IMAGE CREDIT: AFP/GETTY