Amidst reports that the controversial Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 is about to dock in the Maldivian capital of Male, the Indian Coast Guard, the Sri Lankan navy and the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) are conducting a trilateral joint exercise called DOSTI-16 off Male.

The MNDF, in a post on X, welcomed the participating ships from India and Sri Lanka and added that the exercise will be held from Thursday to Sunday. The exercise will be observed by a team from Bangladesh.

The purpose of the biennial exercise is to enhance military collaboration between the three nations and explore ways they can work together with respect to incidents at sea.

The DOSTI series of exercises was kicked off between Maldives and India in 1991. Sri Lanka first participated in the exercise in 2012. The exercise was last held in 2021.

Meanwhile, the Indian media reported that the Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03, suspected to be a spy vessel by India, had entered Maldivian waters and was about to dock in its capital Male. The 4,300-ton Xiang Yang Hong 03 is meant to map the floor of the Indian Ocean. The vessel belongs to the Third Institute of Oceanography in China.

The Indian Navy believes that the mapping of the seabed will enable submarine operations in the geopolitically-significant Indian Ocean Region.

The vessel had sailed from Sanya in China over a month ago and is likely to dock in Male shortly.

After India protested to the Maldives about hosting the vessel, the Maldivian government said that the vessel will only come for rotation and replenishment and will not conduct any research in Maldivian waters.

The vessel was to call at Colombo also but Sri Lanka, responding to Indian concerns, told the Chinese that it had imposed a one-year moratorium on visits by research ships to enable it to work out a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for such visits.

India's concerns, however, are not limited to the waters of the Maldives. They extend to the other areas this vessel is operating in. This ship has been moving in the waters between the Maldives and Sri Lanka in a zigzag manner, according to the Indian media.

Indo-Maldivian relations deteriorated after the government of Mohamed Muizzu swung towards China and asked the Indians to withdraw their military personnel who were running a rescue and evacuation operation in the islands.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry has said the two countries had “agreed on a set of mutually workable solutions to enable continued operation of Indian aviation platforms” that provide humanitarian services to the Maldives. The soldiers, reports said, would now be replaced by civilians.

However, recently, the Indian Coast Guard boarded Maldivian fishing vessels in Maldivian waters on two occasions and interrogated the crew at gunpoint. Maldives protested but India did not respond.

Though the Maldivian Defence Force is participating in DOSTI-16 exercise, relations between the two countries are not good.