India responds to China's moves in Indian Ocean

COVID-19: India displays its maritime might in response to China’s moves in Indian Ocean

Indian Navy ship INS Magar arrive to bring nearly 200 stranded Indian nationals home amid the coronavirus pandemic under 'Vande Bharat' mission, at Male in Maldives. (PTI Photo)

From a not-so-subtle display of its maritime might, while repatriating its citizens stranded in the Maldives to sending a navy ship with food and medicines to help Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles and Mauritius to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, India is responding to China’s bid to spread its tentacles in Indian Ocean region. 

The Indian Navy ship, INS Jalaswa, reached Kochi on the south-west coast of India on Sunday, bringing home 698 citizens, who got stranded in the Maldives due to the travel and transport curbs enforced to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. It was escorted by the other warships of the western fleet of the Indian Navy during its voyage from Male to Kochi – sending out a message to China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which of late deployed research vessels, underwater drones as well as its 35th Task Force in the Indian Ocean.

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The Indian Navy warships are likely to repeat the show-of-strength during the INS Magar’s voyage from Male to Kochi, repatriating 200 more citizens, who were stranded in the Maldives. The INS Jalaswa and INS Magar are likely to continue what New Delhi named as Operation “Samudra Setu” – bringing back home in the coming days more citizens from the Indian Ocean archipelago to Thoothukudi on the south-east coast of India.   

New Delhi also sent another Indian Navy vessel, INS Kesari, to the Maldives and four other Indian Ocean nations – Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles and Madagascar – with teams of healthcare professionals, medicines and food onboard to help them respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

The rendezvous between INS Jalaswa and other warships on Saturday was intended to reassert India’s naval prowess in the Indian Ocean in response to the Chinese PLA Navy’s move late last month to deploy its 35th Task Force in the region with the stated objective of patrolling the sea lanes to protect vessels from pirates. The task force will have altogether 690 naval personnel, with the missile destroyer Taiyan and frigate Jingzhou joining counter-piracy patrol in the Indian Ocean for the first time.

New Delhi has of late been also worried over reports of China deploying a fleet of underwater drones (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles) in the Indian Ocean. The drones were launched by China’s survey vessel Xiangyanghong-06 in December and recovered in February. The stated objective of deploying the drones was conducting scientific research, but they can also be used for military purposes – like detecting and neutralizing underwater mines and helping submarines sail through.

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The Chinese PLAN’s moves in the region prompted the Indian Navy to issue a statement on April 14, asserting its preparedness to respond to any security threat and stating that it had not lowered its guard in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and its maritime surveillance aircraft continued scanning the Indian Ocean region for any potential threat.

The Indian Navy in September 2019 spotted and chased away China’s research vessel Shiyan 1 in the Exclusive Economic Zone of India near the Andaman and Nicobar islands. New Delhi is however aware that four or five research vessels of China can be spotted in the Indian Ocean, of course beyond the EEZ of India, at any given time. Besides, the Chinese PLAN also deployed submarines in the Indian Ocean, including Shang class Type 093 nuclear-powered ones.    

 India has also reached out to other nations in the Indian Ocean region to help them deal with the COVID-19 crisis, in order to reassert its role as the “first responder” and to counter China’s bid to push what the Chinese President Xi Jinping recently referred to as “Health Silk Road” initiative.