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After being alerted to an Indian missile launch, a Chinese spy vessel changes course and heads back

The Yuan Wang-class ship is a part of the Chinese PLA's Strategic Support Force and is responsible for monitoring and assisting ICBMs and satellites.

In New Delhi: Early on Monday, the Chinese research ship Yuan Wang-5 returned to the Indian Ocean, according to information gathered by the Norwegian business Maritime Optima. According to Maritime Optima, the Yuan Wang-5 is currently southbound in the Indian Ocean off the coast of the Indonesian island of Java.

A week after India had sent out a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen/Notice to Air Missions) on a missile test in the Andaman and Nicobar region, and a few days after the Yuan Wang-5 appeared to do a U-turn in response to India’s NOTAM, the development happened.

On 2 December, open source geospatial intelligence expert Damien Symon tweeted speculatively that the Chinese ship would return to the Indian Ocean.

The current occurrences are by no means the first occasion an Indian NOTAM has caused a Yuan Wang-class ship to alter course or come to the attention of the Indian Navy. These ships are owned and operated by the Chinese PLA’s Strategic Support Force.

The Yuan Wang-6 entered the Indian Ocean in November of this year in advance of a missile test that India had scheduled for November 11 and for which it had issued a NOTAM designating a sizeable portion of the Bay of Bengal as a no-fly zone.

Symon claims that India had issued a new NOTAM for the no-fly zone above the Bay of Bengal with a launch window of November 23–24 after cancelling its previous one on November 7 because to the presence of the Chinese vessel.

“The deployment is also in sync with a Chinese aerospace mission that flies over the Bay of Bengal between 15 and 20 November, which would put the Yuan Wang-6 near the Indian missile test’s splash zone as well,” Symon had contextualised about the vessel’s entry into the Indian Ocean at the time.

The Yuan Wang-5 was scheduled to arrive earlier in August on August 11 at the Chinese-owned port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Colombo temporarily withdrew berthing permission after India’s interference, delaying the ship’s arrival at Hambantota.

The Yuan Wang-5 did, however, eventually dock at Hambantota on August 16 and leave Sri Lankan territory on August 22.

Admiral Hari Kumar, the Chief of Naval Staff of India, stated that there are numerous Chinese ships operating in the Indian Ocean region and that the Navy routinely monitors activity in the region to protect Indian interests in the region. The most recent developments regarding the movement of the Yuan Wang-5, however, appear to be business as usual in his eyes.

“We have a presence of 4-6 PLA Navy ships, then research vessels and a large number of fishing [vessels]. As resident maritime power [of the Indian Ocean Region], we keep monitoring and we are aware it is a vital region…We track them and make sure they don’t undertake any activities which are inimical to Indian interests,” Kumar said.

Despite being owned by the Chinese PLA and built in 2007 by Jiangnan Shipyard, Yuan Wang-5 is not controlled by the PLA Navy. Instead, it is in use with the Chinese PLA’s Strategic Support Force, which was formed in December 2015 and is the fifth and newest branch of the PLA.

One of four active ships in the Yuan Wang-class, the espionage research vessel is in charge of monitoring and assisting satellites as well as ICBMs (ICBMs).

Regarding the function of the Yuan Wang-class under the recently established Strategic Support Force, the online news division of the Chinese firm NetEase has published in March 2016: “Yin Zhuo, a military expert, said in an interview with state media that the tasks of the Strategic Support Force include undertaking daily navigation operations, managing Beidou satellites (satellite navigation system) and space reconnaissance means, and undertaking defence tasks in electromagnetic space and cyberspace.”

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