Sri Lanka Suspends Chinese Research Vessel Visits

Map of South Asia, India featured.

“In the immediate (time frame), it means that China’s third ‘research/spy vessel’ Xiang Yang Hong 3 is not welcome in the first week of the New Year.”

India has been wary of Chinese research vessels docking in Sri Lankan ports and has pushed Sri Lanka to prevent these port calls. China claims the vessels are only for scientific purposes, but the Chinese ships that have docked in Sri Lanka are known to have dual scientific and intelligence-gathering purposes.[i] The accompanying excerpted articles report on Sri Lanka’s recent decision for a one-year moratorium on foreign research vessels docking in the country’s ports beginning 1 January 2024, and demonstrate how Sri Lanka continues to be a focal point in tensions between India and China.

The first excerpted article from India’s independent think tank Observer Research Foundation states that Sri Lanka’s moratorium is an attempt to appease India by not allowing Chinese ships to carry out intelligence gathering activities so close to India under the guise of scientific research. While Sri Lanka has become more economically tied with China over the past several years, it still relies on India as an economic and political partner. Sri Lanka’s ties with India, while strained at times, go back further than its ties with China. An immediate impact of the moratorium resulted in the Chinese ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 being prohibited from docking in Sri Lanka in early January. The author mentions that China sought permission from both Sri Lanka and the Maldives to dock the Xiang Yang Hong 3 late last year. The second excerpted article from India’s English-language daily Deccan Herald reports that in light of the Sri Lankan moratorium, the Maldives is allowing the Xiang Yang Hong 3 docking rights. The purpose of the Chinese visit is for the rotation of personnel and replenishment for the ship, and not for research, according to the article. Nevertheless, the decision by the Maldives enables China a port visit close to India. The article also mentions that there will likely be some political fallout between India and the Maldives over this authorization, though it is unclear how this will play out. Overall, Sri Lanka’s one year moratorium on foreign ships reflects India’s influence in Sri Lanka. However, the docking of the Xiang Yang Hong 3 in the Maldives likewise demonstrates that India’s ability to influence only extends so far, allowing China to project power and maintain a presence near India.


N. Sathiya Moorthy, “Decoding Sri Lanka’s moratorium on foreign research vessels,” Observer Research Foundation (independent think-tank in India), 8 January 2024.

On the face of it, the recent Sri Lankan government’s decision to ‘declare a pause’ on foreign research vessels for one year beginning 1 January 2024 is an attempt to buy peace with the large-hearted Indian neighbour, and also the United States…

In the immediate, it means that China’s third ‘research/spy vessel’ Xiang Yang Hong 3 is not welcome in the first week of the New Year…

“The arrival of these ships creates serious diplomatic tensions, and it (2024) is an election year,” Foreign Minister Ali Sabry said, by way of explanation. “Such ship visits can be highly disruptive for the region and Sri Lanka, because of the pressure the government may come under…” he added…

For instance, Shi Yan 6 was not the first Chinese research/survey ship, otherwise considered a ‘spy ship’, to visit Sri Lanka…A year earlier in 2022, Yuan Wang 5 had berthed at the Chinese-controlled Hambantota Port in the south, unlike Shi Yan 6, which docked at the capital Colombo…

In the case of the new vessel, Xiang Yang Hong 3, China had sought permission from both Sri Lanka and neighbouring Maldives, to dock it in these waters from 5 January to the end of May, a long five-month haul. As the intention was to map the ocean in these parts, the long stay should be a cause for concern for the larger Indian neighbour.

It should be equally so for the US, whose Diego Garcia military base is situated 700 km away…

Anirban Bhaumik, “India wary as Maldives allows China ‘research vessel’ to dock at port,” Deccan Herald (English-language daily newspaper in India), 23 January 2024.

…President Mohamed Muizzu’s government on Tuesday stated that it had decided to allow Chinese PLAN’s ‘research vessel’ Xiang Yang Hong 3 to dock at Malé, the main port of the Maldives. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the government of the Maldives stated that the decision to allow the ship to make the port call followed a diplomatic request from Beijing. It, however, claimed that Xiang Yang Hong 3 would dock at Malé only for the rotation of personnel and replenishment and would not conduct any research as long as it would remain in the territorial waters of the Maldives.New Delhi, however, is not convinced and, according to the sources, would soon convey its concerns to Malé through diplomatic channels. A source in New Delhi told DH that India would use its assets to keep watch on the Xiang Yang Hong 3 during its port call in the Maldives…


[i] For background on India pressuring Sri Lanka to prevent Chinese vessels docking in Sri Lankan ports, see: Matthew Stein “India Works To Maintain Sri Lankan Foothold Amid Growing China Presence,” OE Watch, 10-2022.

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