The Shi Yan 6 and the turmoil in the Indian Ocean

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The Indo-China rivalry in the Indian Ocean has suddenly erupted again after the arrival of the Chinese Geophysical Scientific Research vessel Shi Yan 6 in Colombo port on October 25, 2023. Politically and geographically, Sri Lanka plays a vital role as one among the few countries in which China is trying to increase its power in the Global South. Prior to the arrival of the Chinese ship Shi Yan 6, there had been a number of debates about whether Sri Lanka would allow the ship to enter its territory due to the high tension in the Indian Ocean. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka has granted clearance for the arrival of the new Chinese Geophysical Scientific Research vessel Shi Yan 6.

This is not the first time for Sri Lanka to face a situation like this. In 2022, a Chinese ship called Yuan Wang 5 had docked in the Hambantota port despite Indian concerns. It posed a significant threat to Indian security as it was intended to conduct research in the Indian Ocean. However, after much controversy, the Sri Lankan government agreed to allow the ship to dock in the Hambantota Port. In fact, one of the Sri Lankan parliament members, Sarath Weerasekara, described the arrival of Yuan Wang 5 as a peace mission. This raises the question of whether it truly was a peace mission. After the arrival of Yuan Wang 5, the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhen Hong, stated in his speech that allowing the ship to dock in the port demonstrated the friendship between the two countries. Delhi’s main concern was the ship’s advanced technical equipment, including optical, laser, passive radio, and radar technologies. Despite these controversies, Sri Lanka allowed the ship to dock in the Hambantota port, disregarding India’s security concerns.

Now, it is the Shi Yan 6 that has captured the attention of the Global South. SHI YAN 6 is a research vessel registered with the International Maritime Organization and sailing under the flag of China. It was built in 2020 with an overall length of 90.6 meters and a beam of 17 meters. It is operated by CHINA GOVT INST OCEANOGRAPHY. The primary objective of this vessel is to conduct extensive surveys in the sea, equipped with the latest high technology for monitoring the ocean bed. Now, Shi Yan 6 has arrived in Hambantota after receiving all necessary clearances. Initially, the University of Ruhuna had entered into an agreement to conduct research activities, but due to the controversial situations, the University of Ruhuna announced its withdrawal from the research activity. Meanwhile, China revealed that the vessel would spend eighty days at sea conducting twenty-eight research projects with twelve research teams covering a vast area of over twelve thousand nautical miles.

The maritime border in the Global South has been a major challenge in recent times due to great power competition. India, as a rising power, has always kept a close watch on neighboring countries, especially Sri Lanka, regarding China’s economic and political cooperation with Sri Lanka. India, as a powerful country in the Global South, places a high priority on its security along the maritime border in the Indian Ocean. Any external interference in the Indian Ocean without India’s consensus is seen as a threat to Indian security. As of now, the arrival of the Shi Yan 6 in the Hambantota port has heightened tensions in Indian maritime border security. India, as a neighboring country to Sri Lanka, has played a significant role in terms of economic and political support. India was the first country to provide the assurance needed to start the IMF fund process, strengthening Indo-Sri Lanka ties and fostering friendship between the two countries in various aspects. The recent ferry service between Nagapatinam in India and Kankesanthurai near Jaffna is a prime example of bilateral ties between these two countries.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs President Council, Ali Sabri, during a visit to New York, informed ANI News service that the Chinese vessel had not been approved to enter Sri Lankan waters during the month of October. He further emphasized that Indian legitimate concerns are very important because they aim to maintain the region as a zone of peace. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, during a recent visit to India for the G20 forum, assured Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the country would take care of India’s security and strategic concerns. However, all the above statements were put aside when the Sri Lankan President visited China for the BRI Forum on October 20th. He explained to the Chinese media that Sri Lanka, as an independent sovereign country, deals with all countries based on its national interest.

When we consider the power politics in the Indian Ocean, it is closely connected to the realist perspectives of Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and Mearsheimer. According to them, every state seeks to increase its power in world politics and views power as the main interest for maintaining sovereignty. In this context, China aims to increase its power as a strategy to maintain the balance of power, while India sees China as a threat to its sovereignty. In the midst of these power politics, Sri Lanka has become a strategic point for both China and India.

It is evident that due to high-tension power politics, Sri Lanka aims to maintain a neutral stance in the Indo-China rivalry. However, this neutral stance raises concerns in the Indian Ocean, especially for Indian security. China uses this to expand its naval footprint in the Global South. Meanwhile, New Delhi has heightened its concerns about maritime borders to counter recent Chinese intervention and military activities in the Indian Ocean. The geographical location of Sri Lanka is crucial in terms of maritime routes. Therefore, China’s intervention in Sri Lankan territory has become a dilemma in the Indian Ocean. To counter Chinese vessel intervention in the Indian Ocean, the concept of the Indo-Pacific has become a prominent aspect in world politics in recent times. Nevertheless, China has a significant presence in Sri Lanka, with a ninety-nine-year lease in the Hambantota port and the Port City in Colombo as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As long as China has the opportunity to interfere in Sri Lankan territory, India faces a major security challenge. The only option India has is to increase its own presence in Sri Lankan territory, as exemplified by the recent initiative of the ferry service between India and Sri Lanka.



[Thabooshan is an enthusiastic scholar currently pursuing a Master’s degree in International Relations at the South Asian University in New Delhi, India. He possesses a solid foundation in Philosophy, having graduated from a prestigious National Seminary affiliated with the Urban University of Rome in Sri Lanka.

His academic journey reflects a profound interest in the complexities of global affairs, with a particular focus on comparative politics, security studies, regional integration, as well as Human Rights and Social justice. Thabooshan delves into the intricacies of political theory and examines the dynamics of security and conflict studies.

He is committed to broadening his knowledge and contributing to a deeper understanding of the intricate world of international relations. Thabooshan firmly believes that through education, dialogue, and research, we can strive towards a more peaceful and interconnected global community.]

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