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Chinese Grey Zone operations in the Indian Ocean Region?

Even as the India Army Chief of Army Staff, General Manoj Pande highlighted that the standoff at the points of contention in Eastern Ladakh is continuing and the situation was, "stable but unpredictable", Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is also active with increase in China’s maritime activity by ships affiliated to the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force and civilian fishing flotilla.

In recent months increasing Chinese maritime activitiy has been noticed in the Indian Ocean Region. While the presence of the PLA Navy is limited to continuance of the anti piracy mission off the coasts of Somalia, at least that is what is known in open source information, however movement of survey and tracking ships and the fishing fleet has been noticeable which has raised concerns in India.

This could lead to challenges simultaneously emerging on the maritime front though at present remains in the area of, “grey zone operations.”

The presence of Chinese Yuan Wang class vessels can even led to a delay of missile tests by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Strategic Forces Command (SFC).

The next launch window for short range missile tests is said to be between 16 to 18 November as indicated below.

Yuan Wang Class Ships

Two Yuan Wang class ships [5 & 6] are said to be in the areas of the Indian Ocean Region where the tests were planned in November.

As per the Wikipedia, Yuan Wang-class (Chinese: 远望; lit. 'Long View') are used for tracking and support of satellite and intercontinental ballistic missiles by the People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force of the People's Republic of China (PRC). However, each vessel in the class is designed for specific reconnaissance purpose and the exact details of Yuan Wang 5 are not known in open sources.

As per website tracking Marine Traffic YUAN WANG 5 (IMO: 9413054) has a carrying capacity is 11000 t DWT and her current draught is reported to be 8.2 meters. Her length overall (LOA) is 222 meters, and her width is 25.2 meters.

Yuan Wang 6 has also been categorized as a Research and Survey vessel by Marine Traffic. The vessel has similar carrying capacity 11000 t DWT and current draught reported to be 8 meters with length overall (LOA) 222 meters and width is 25.2 meters. The ship accommodates 400 personnel thus indicating the large numbers who are incorporated for carrying out research and survey work.

The Yuan Wang 6 sailed through the Lombok Strait, and was also joined by the Yuan Wang 5. Docking of Yuan Wang 5 in the port of Hambantota had led to a tiff between India and Sri Lanka with Colombo delaying permission for the same in August as New Delhi had raised objections for Chinese maritime activity at the strategic port. The ships are not registered as naval vessels but survey this allows them to move into the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Nevertheless, movement of the ships in and around the site of testing had led to delays. "The Indian Navy has been closely monitoring the Chinese research vessel as soon as it entered the IOR. Indian Navy's assets which are Mission deployed in the IOR and the aerial surveillance capabilities ensure that the Navy maintains a comprehensive maritime domain awareness in the region," ANI quoted defence sources as per the Economic Times.

"India had earlier issued a NOTAM (notice to airmen) with an expanded no-fly zone over the Bay of Bengal for the test of a long-range ballistic missile on November 10-11. A new AD-1interceptor missile for Phase-II of the indigenous two-tier ballistic missile defence (BMD) system was also tested from the Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast just two days ago," said the Economic Times. Clearly the objective of the research vessels is to track Indian missile tests.

IUU Fishing

In addition to the research vessels, the Hindu reported the presence of extra regional fishing fleets in the Indian Ocean which included over 200 Chinese fishing vessels. This is a part of moinotring of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU).

“The presence of extra-regional distant water fishing fleets has been monitored by Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC). Around 200-250 Chinese fishing vessels have been monitored in the Indian Ocean, with a large concentration in the Northern Indian Ocean,” said the Navy, in its written response to the Hindu, “A total of 392 reported incidents of IUU fishing were monitored in 2021 compared to 379 in 2020 in the Indian Ocean.”

The Hindu also quoted an official to state, 140 Chinese fishing vessels monitored fishing beyond India’s EEZ, in the North Western IOR. “However, only approximately one-third of these had licenses for such activities, which borders on the lines of being categorised as IUU,” the official stated as per the Hindu.


Indian Navy has in place extensive monitoring centres in the Indian Ocean. As per the Indian Navy website, Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), is the nodal centre of the National Command Control Communications and Intelligence Network (NC3I Network), and is a joint initiative of Indian Navy, Coast Guard and Bharat Electronics Ltd to improve coastal surveillance.

Inaugurated by then Defence Minister Shri Manohar Parrikar the focus is mainly in the territorial waters, “We do not want to be offensive but we must be strong enough to deter our enemies from casting an evil eye upon us”, Mr Parrikar said at the inauguration.

The IMAC is the centre where data from various sensors and databases is aggregated, correlated and then disseminated to various stations for enhanced awareness. The software on which the coastal surveillance will be carried out incorporates hi-tech features like data fusion, correlation and decision support features thus facilitating better decision making.

India has also established the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) at Gurugram on 22 Dec 18 to further Maritime Safety and Security in the Indian Ocean Region. The Centre aims at strengthening maritime security in the region and beyond, by building a common coherent maritime situation picture and acting as a maritime security information sharing hub for the region as per the Indian Navy Website.

The Centre has hosted International Liaison Officers [ILOs] from 11 partner nations - Australia, France, Japan, Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Singapore, United Kingdom, United States of America.

IFC IOR – Report of IUU Activity

In the Half Yearly report of the IFC IOR for Jan – Jun 2022 published in August this year 262 IUU fishing incidents were recorded by the Centre from Jan - Jun 22, an increase of about a 23% from Jan - Jun 21 and a 46% increase from Jul – Dec 21.

During H1-22, about 58% of these incidents were related to illegal fishing practices by local vessels of coastal states (IUU fishing – local) and the remaining constituted illegal fishing by foreign vessels (IUU fishing – poaching). No IUU fishing incident was recorded in the high seas (beyond EEZ), which highlights the monitoring challenges and legal gaps in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ) says the report

Disagreement linked to pending EEZ delimitations and competition between coastal artisanal fishing and foreign industrial fishing fleets remain potential flashpoints.

Grey Zone Operations (GZO)

Clearly the activities of the Chinese survey ships and civilian fishing armada fall into what is known as “grey zone operations”.

GZOs are defined as undeclared actions undertaken by State and Non-State Actors with deniable attributability of outcomes to pursue politico-security objectives, employing multiple elements and tools of national power while remaining below the threshold of intense violent conflict.

GZOs effectively exploit political, economic, societal and security fault-lines of the adversary and intentionally violate and/or undermine international regulations and laws. GZOs undertaken by adversaries undermine national interests.


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