The PLA ballistic missile, satellite tracking and seabed mapping ship Yuan Wang 5 entered the Indian Ocean Region on December 5 and exited through Sahul Banks, north-west of Australia, on December 12 apparently in a mission to track Chinese space activity.
While Yuan Wang 5 is heading towards Sanya Port on Hainan Island, which harbors China ballistic missile nuclear submarine base, the frequent activity of Yuan Wang class of strategic tracking ships indicates that PLA Navy is mapping the Sunda and Lombok Straits for future submarines operations in the Indian Ocean.
Last month, Yuan Wang 6 was surveying around the Lombok Straits and went down to 5000 km long Ninety East ridge—from Bay of Bengal to South East Indian Ridge– of the Indian Ocean before returning to Shanghai port. Sister ship Yuan Wang 5 docked at China leased Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka in August and then proceeded south to prospect the same ridge before going back to home port in Shanghai.
Although many in the past have dismissed these Chinese activities as prospecting for heavy metals in the Indian Ocean bed, the motive clearly is to map the ocean bed for nuclear submarine operations using Sunda, Lombok and Ombi-Vetar straits near Australia. Chinese submarines will have to surface if they use Malacca Strait, the shortest route from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal. And that is the reason why Yuan Wang 5 is headed towards Sanya port, near Yulin submarine base on Hainan Island.
All the above Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, Ombi-Vetar straits are under the jurisdiction of Indonesia and that is the reason why the Indonesian President was the first one to meet President Xi Jinping in July 2022 after the Winter Olympic games and due to Covid pandemic in China.
The other reason for ocean bed mapping and topography around these straits is for future anti-submarine operations as Australia will be acquiring US built nuclear power conventional armed attack submarines under the AUKUS pact. Besides, China is also exploring alternative sea routes to eastern board of Africa and the Middle-East for trade. These routes will be bypassing the nine degree and 10-degree channels near Lakshadweep and Andamans and Nicobar Islands monitored by India.
While the Indian military-civilian bureaucracy is taking its own time in developing deep sea ports and jetties on India’s Island territories, China is going full steam ahead as part of its expanding naval footprint in Indian Ocean.