The stakes in the South China Sea (SCS) are apparently reaching down to the murky depths of this contentious waterway as Beijing readies its undersea surveillance network to consolidate its presence in the region.
The China State Shipbuilding Corp. (CSSC), one of China’s top shipbuilding and defense groups that builds virtually all People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships, has been laying a network of ship and subsurface sensors that it calls the Underwater Great Wall Project that is designed to gain Beijing an enormous undersea warfare advantage. Estimated to be close to completion, the project will help China push its effective control zone and track all submarine, surface and aerial activity in the littoral. CSSC is also flaunting the system as “a package solution” in terms of underwater environment monitoring and collection, real-time location, tracing of surface and underwater targets, warning of seaquakes, tsunamis and other disasters, as well as for garnering research data on marine life and geology.
Project details were made available at a CSSC booth at a public exhibition in China late last year, with IHS Jane’s managing to have them translated from a government official. The CSSC document is quoted as claiming that one of the company’s objectives is to provide its customers with “a package solution in terms of underwater environment monitoring and collection, real-time location, tracing of surface and underwater targets, warning of seaquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters as well as marine scientific research.”
The CSSC model appears to be a vastly advanced and comprehensive version of the Sound Surveillance System that had accorded the United States a significant advantage in countering Soviet submarines during the Cold War. The system was comprised of an array of hydrophones on the ocean bottom connected by undersea cables along the entire U.S. East Coast to onshore processing centers.
The Underwater Great Wall gives visible shape to China’s intent on asserting its role in the region. Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China and East China seas have sparked disputes with its neighbors such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
The bone of contention has been the various island enclaves, not of much value in themselves, but the possession of which would provide strategic, resource-rich continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones that extend 200 nautical miles from the low-water shoreline. Toward this, China has been creating islands and militarizing them to further its access to marine resources. Also, Beijing’s energy-hungry, export-driven economy that is heavily reliant on raw material and fuel imports seeks to buttress its suzerainty over the regional Sea Lines of Communication that are critical to the survival of the entire Asia-Pacific community.
It is largely to its seaborne trade that China owes its spectacular economic transformation that helped shrink the 61 percent of its population living in extreme poverty in 1990 to only 4 percent by 2015. One study reckons that of the 4 billion tonnes added to global seaborne trade between 2002 and 2014, Chinese imports accounted for 94 percent of the increase in iron ore volumes and 35 percent in coal volumes, while Chinese exports accounted for 60 percent of the expansion in container trade.
To ensure safe passage to its maritime trade and expand its commercial footprint, China has been extending its blue-water presence in its neighborhood through the establishment of its South Sea Fleet surface combatants in Guangdong province, which faces Hainan Island, where its nuclear-submarine fleet is located. The area also has the deployment of precision cruise and advanced ballistic missiles that can target all current U.S. bases and naval forces in the region.
The ominous developments are posing a threat to the Asia-Pacific as a whole, the fastest-growing economic region in the world. While this region has hitherto been driven by commercial interests, this widening unrest threatens the sea lanes that are its lifeline.
China’s military posturing challenges the United States, viewing Washington’s pursuit of its “pivot” to Asia as an American attempt to curb Chinese influence across the region and embolden countries to challenge China on the maritime disputes. Beijing has argued, too, that this policy is aimed at containing its legitimately expanding economy and military, and bolstering American presence in this region of the future.
Though Washington has sought to be neutral, it is conscious of the need for freedom of navigation for all countries. Hence, it finds it imperative to raise its already-formidable profile in the Asia-Pacific. Its numerous military bases in the region include 17 in Japan and 12 in South Korea, while it also has a presence in Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Guam and Singapore, and on the British-controlled Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
Through its Underwater Great Wall, China may also well affirm the so-called “nine-dash line” that it had unilaterally delineated in 1947 to claim as much as 90 percent of the 1.4 million square-mile expanse of the South China Sea. And it was this claim that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague debunked in July in a case against China brought before it by the Philippines.
Not only the creation itself of the Underwater Great Wall, but its locational sweep in disputed waters, may spark fresh reprisals from nations in the littoral that are no longer agreeable to countenance any further excesses.
• Sarosh Bana is executive editor of Business India.
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