Beijing has increased the tempo of its deep sea surveys in the South China Sea, worrying claimant states and other nations. Experts say the mapping of the sea floor is a pressure tactic that could help China’s Navy monitor submarine traffic in the disputed waters.
China has the world’s largest fleet of research and survey ships. This year alone, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and BenarNews, its affiliated service, have detected Chinese surveys off the coasts of Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. India is also reportedly concerned about what China portrays as benign research activity, after a Chinese survey ship operated late last year in the Eastern Indian Ocean.
Collin Koh, a research fellow with the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said meteorological, geophysical, acoustic, hydrographic and other scientific information collected from such surveys were “dual-use.”
“The same data that contributes to the furtherance of mankind’s knowledge of the marine environment contributes to national security purposes, especially military planning,” he said.
The survey fleet
According to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China’s government owns 25 survey vessels, more than twice that of the United States, and even more are owned and operated by Chinese universities and research centers with close affiliations to the government.
For example, the Hai Yang-series of research vessels are directly operated by China’s Geological Survey agency. One such survey ship, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 9, is currently performing a survey around the entirety of Pratas atoll, a feature in the South China Sea’s northeastern reaches that is occupied by Taiwan.
The Hai Yang 9 commenced its survey on June 10, and was still working in the area as of Monday – picking up from a survey it conducted in the same location last July. The survey comes at a particularly sensitive time, as China is in the midst of military exercises that will, at one point, reportedly simulate the seizure of Taiwan’s outlying islands – including Pratas.
China claims Taiwan as a “renegade province,” despite the fact that it is a self-governing island.
Meanwhile, the Hai Yang 9’s sister ships are operating close to other claimants in the South China Sea.
Last week, China sent the Hai Yang Di Zhi 4 into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, likely in response to Vietnam’s threat of renewing oil exploration in waters both Vietnam and China claim.
“It is difficult to know for sure,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with RAND Corp, a U.S. think tank. “But given the route Hai Yang Di Zhi 4 is on at the moment, combined with planned oil exploration at the disputed Block 06-01, it would be unsurprising if the two events were related.”
On June 17, the survey ship was approximately 147 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast – that’s more than 50 nautical miles within its exclusive economic zone.
By Monday, however, the Hai Yang 4 had left Vietnam’s EEZ, and it was unclear whether it would continue with a survey. Nevertheless, its brief presence may have been enough to communicate the message that Beijing won’t let oil exploration to go ahead without incident. An internationally-operated oil rig set to operate in Vietnam’s waters this month, the Clyde Boudreaux, is still sitting idle in the Vietnamese port of Vung Tau.
According to Grossman, this is a near-repeat of last year, when the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 performed a highly controversial survey in Vietnam’s EEZ, triggering a months-long standoff with Vietnam. It then did a survey this year within Malaysian waters from mid-April to mid-May – an episode that prompted the U.S. Navy to patrol the area and for U.S. officials to publicly criticize Beijing. Both of those surveys appeared aimed at pressuring international companies out of exploring for resources with other claimants in the South China Sea.
Koh said this is part of Beijing’s long-standing position on who has rights to resources in the South China Sea. Beijing insists all oil and gas exploration in the area – including within other countries’ EEZs – must be done with Chinese partners.
Koh said that where China can’t exploit resources by itself and “where joint development isn’t forthcoming,” it will instead try to simply stop other countries from exploring for themselves –especially in disputed waters or borderline areas.
Last week, Spanish oil company Repsol sold its shares in three Vietnamese oil blocks back to Vietnam’s state oil company – largely because it had to halt operations two years ago, after taking on pressure from China.
“Through intimidation tactics, Beijing has, at times, been successful at scaring international companies out of continuing their exploration activities,” Grossman said.
In some cases, China may be using its survey data from research missions to strengthen its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China maintains it has “historic rights” to virtually all of these resource-rich waters despite overlapping claims from five other governments: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. “Historic rights” is a phrase that China also appears to think applies to the seabed as well.
In mid-April, China released a list of names and locations for 80 new features in the South China Sea, 55 of which were completely underwater. Most were within the EEZ of Vietnam. Close scrutiny of those locations reveals that they coincide with where the Hai Yang 8 surveyed in October 2019.
Koh said China’s naming of these features may be “largely symbolic.” Naming features doesn’t strengthen China’s claim to sovereignty under international law.
But Koh added it may give China an edge in its assertion that it has the right to administrate the area, if only because it has more information than other claimant countries on what’s on the seabed. He said China believes that such undersea features “ought to be gien alternative names of distinctly Chinese characteristics.”
China’s surveys are not just limited to the South China Sea.
The Xiang Yang Hong-series of survey vessels are owned and operated by China’s Ministry of Natural Resources, and operate further afield than the Hai Yang-series.
The Xiang Yang Hong 1’s survey off Christmas Island caught the attention of Australia in March, prompting defense officials to accuse China of mapping submarine routes near the Indian Ocean island, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation reported.
On the other side of the ocean, the Shiyan-1 performed a survey in the Eastern Indian Ocean last August, around India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This spurred India’s navy to expel the ship in December, but concerns remain about China’s continued research activity in the region.
“Ocean research vessels such as the one found to be operating in the Andaman Sea late last year are known to have instruments and sensors that collect oceanic and atmospheric data,” said Abhijit Singh, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
The Shiyan-1 is operated by the institute for underwater acoustics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Its research could allow China to obtain a very precise picture of the seafloor and create topographic maps. Singh said that an investigation of the contours and depth of the seabed “has a military implication in that it helps in the identification of possible submarine routes.”
“The fear in India is that these vessels are mapping the Indian Ocean littorals in ways that make it easier for PLAN platforms to operate closer to Indian islands in the Andamans, threatening Indian interests," Singh said, using the acronym for the People’s Liberation Army Navy.