Chinese ships are seen operating in the eastern Indian Ocean in a TV broadcast. Photo: CCTV7 screen grab

The Times of India on Tuesday quoted local defense sources as confirming that a small force of Chinese Navy ships entered the eastern Indian Ocean through the Sunda Strait near Indonesia around February 10. But the vessels are said to have reversed course and returned to the Java Sea via the Lombok Strait after a few days.

The Indian military sources rebuffed what they called “alarmist” press reports of “China indulging in gunboat diplomacy amid the constitutional crisis in Maldives.”

Various news reports in the last week had described the Chinese deployment as a response to a political crisis that has engulfed the government of Maldives President Abdulla Yameen.

The sources said the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) flotilla was over 3,500-km away from the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean during its brief foray. The force is said to have consisted of a destroyer, a frigate, a tanker and an amphibious transport ship.

Close Indian surveillance

“Indian satellites, warships and long-range maritime surveillance aircraft like P-8I kept close tabs on the Chinese flotilla, which was in international waters towards Australia,” the source said.

Navy spokesperson Captain D K Sharma told the Times, “India has a very robust surveillance system to ensure clear and transparent maritime domain awareness in the entire (Indian Ocean Region).”

The Maldivian parliament on Tuesday extended an existing state of emergency by 30 days, as protests in the capital of Malé and international tensions over the crisis continued to mount.

President Yameen declared a 15-day state of emergency on February 5 after his refusal to comply with a Supreme Court decision to free political opposition leaders. The face-off escalated after the government arrested Supreme Court judges and other political opponents of Yameen.

Yameen has forged close ties with China and sought investments from Beijing. New Delhi and Washington are displeased with Yameen’s pro-China stance. Reports said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is mulling whether to dispatch troops to Maldives to intervene in the crisis.

China’s state-run tabloid Global Times warned in an op-ed on February 13 that Beijing would “take action” if New Delhi unilaterally decided to send troops to the crisis-torn Maldives.

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