China on Tuesday defended the increasing forays by its research vessels into the Indian Ocean as well to the Maldives, saying these were for peaceful purposes and aimed at contributing to humanity’s scientific understanding of the ocean.

The Maldives had on January 23 permitted China’s Xiang Yang Hong 03, equipped to carry research and surveys, to dock at Male port, saying the halt was for replenishment and that the research vessel would “not be conducting any research while in the Maldivian waters.” The permission for the Chinese vessel to dock at Male port was given by the recently elected pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu. The Indian defence establishment said New Delhi is keeping a close watch on the movement of the Chinese ship.

On Tuesday, when asked for his comments at a media briefing here, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the ship’s activities complied with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). “China’s scientific research activities in relevant waters are for peaceful purposes and aimed at contributing to humanity’s scientific understanding of the ocean,” Wang said. “For years, China and the Maldives have maintained close cooperation in marine scientific research.

China appreciates the facilitation and assistance extended by the Maldives to Chinese research vessels entering its port on the basis of sovereignty and China-Maldives friendship and in accordance with the relevant provisions of international law,” he said. According to Marine Traffic, a private website keeping a watch on the movement of ships, the eight-year-old Chinese ship is likely to dock at a Male port on February 8. Earlier, Sri Lanka had banned the repeated visits of Chinese research vessels to its Hambantota port following concerns expressed by India about their nature of research, especially the mapping of the Indian Ocean floor for military purposes besides spying on India’s defence facilities.

The permission to allow the Chinese ship comes after Muizzu’s state visit to China last month during which the two countries announced the elevation of bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership besides signing 20 agreements to assist infrastructure construction in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation. China also announced a USD 130 million grant, besides promising to send more Chinese tourists to the tourism-dependent Maldives.

An American think-tank has alleged that a massive fleet of China’s “scientific research” ships is collecting data from the oceans, including in the Indian Ocean, for military purposes, especially for submarine operations, a charge denied by Beijing. While permitting the Chinese research vessels, the Maldives Foreign Ministry said last month that it is only for rotation of personnel and replenishment not for research.

Observers say that it is to be seen whether Maldives will stick to its stand of not permitting Chinese vessels to conduct research in the waters close to the proximity of India, considering the deepening economic dependence of the Muizzu government on China. After assuming office, Muizzu struck anti-India posturing calling for the withdrawal of 88 Indian military personnel stationed in Maldives, and also said Maldives would not renew the hydrography agreement with India.

In his first speech to the Maldives Parliament on Monday, Muizzu, while articulating the need to bolster the Indian Ocean archipelagic nation’s military capabilities, said the first group of Indian military personnel will be sent back from the island nation before March 10 and the remaining manning two aviation platforms will be withdrawn before May 10. The Maldives has traditionally been India’s key maritime neighbour in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and occupies a special place in its initiatives like SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and the ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ of the Narendra Modi government.