NEW DELHI: The cat-and-mouse game continues in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), while the rival armies are ranged against each other in eastern Ladakh. Another Chinese spy vessel has now entered the IOR ahead of another long-range ballistic missile test planned by India next week.
Chinese research and space-tracking vessel Yuan Wang-5, the docking of which at Hambantota in August had led to a diplomatic spat between India and Sri Lanka, is being closely tracked by the Indian Navy after she entered the IOR through the Sunda Strait of Indonesia on Monday morning, defence sources told TOI.
The presence of the 20,000-tonne Yuan Wang-5, which is packed with large antennae, advanced sensors and electronic equipment with a crew of around 400, comes after India recently issued a NOTAM (notice to airmen) with a long expanded no-fly zone over the Bay of Bengal for a missile test from the Abdul Kalam Island off Odisha coast on December 15-16.
Sources said the country’s most formidable missile, the over 5,000-km range Agni-V, which is in the process of being inducted into the tri-service Strategic Forces Command (SFC), is slated for a test at that time. The first “user trial” of the three-stage Agni-V, which brings even the northernmost part of China within its strike envelope, in its “full operational configuration” was conducted by the SFC in October last year.
It now remains to be seen whether the missile test will actually be conducted as scheduled or be deferred. The presence of another such Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang-6, in the IOR had led to a test of the 3,000-km Agni-3 missile being deferred by some days last month, as was then reported by TOI.
India cannot object to the frequent forays of such Chinese spy ships, which are under the command of the Strategic Support Force of the People’s Liberation Army and undertake electronic snooping, monitor satellite launches and track trajectories of ballistic missiles, in the IOR. All countries have freedom of navigation in international waters.
“China, of course, also has several satellites to monitor our missile tests,” a source said. Chinese survey vessels also come regularly to the IOR to map oceanographic and other data useful for navigation and submarine operations.
The bigger strategic concern for India is that China may use Hambantota -- which it obtained on a 99-year lease from Sri Lanka for commercial purposes in 2017 through its debt-trap policy – for logistical replenishments of its warships and submarines in the future. As per some reports, Sri Lanka occasionally also helps Chinese ships to replenish fuel on the high seas.
With the world’s largest Navy at 355 warships and submarines, China is on the hunt for additional logistical bases in the IOR, from Cambodia, Seychelles and Mauritius to east African countries, after establishing its first overseas base at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa in August 2017.
Navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar on Saturday said India constantly monitors Chinese warships, research or survey ships and fishing vessels in the IOR. “As a resident maritime power, we keep a close watch on them. Our job is to ensure India’s maritime interests are protected and they do not indulge in any inimical activities. We also track Chinese fishing vessels to ensure they do not intrude into our EEZ for illegal activities,” he said.