An underwater observation network planned as the first project of its kind in the South China Sea will reassert Beijing’s sovereignty over the disputed body of water while offering the country information valuable for oil exploration, mineral searches and possible military uses.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Acoustics and Tongji University in Shanghai will build a “long-term observation network” covering the South China and East China seas, the state-controlled Global Times online reported this week. The institute could not be reached for comment this week.

The government’s China Oceanic Information Network cited an academy scholar on its website Saturday saying the platform would provide real time seabed information as well as explore its chemistry, physics and biology “for the comprehensive needs of multiple applications.”

Chinese control

The observation platform will remind five rival claimants to the South China Sea, plus the United States, of the extent of Chinese control, experts say.

Analysts expect the network to take shape as a physical underwater platform with a series of cables extending back onshore to China. It could collect data for military intelligence, undersea mineral gathering or seabed oil drilling.

“It’s a way for them to extend their control and to prove their authority over that area,” said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He expects protests from other countries.

“If you’re looking at Southeast Asian claimants, I think what we can expect will be diplomatic representations,” he said. “For example you’ll have a foreign ministry come up with a statement (to) criticize the move.”

Stronger claim

An observation network would give China’s presence in the sea a stronger legal basis under international law, said Euan Graham, international security director with the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. A world arbitration court ruled China’s historical basis for claiming the sea invalid in July.

According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal states control all marine scientific research in a 200-nautical mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone but must usually grant access to other states for peaceful research purposes.

“If a scientific operation is happening, that lends it a significant air of legitimacy,” Graham said. China could pass the data observed to its military, he added. “It’s possible all of those things can inter-operate in the rather gray space between oceanography and military science,” he said.

Of China’s 20 holdings in the sea’s Paracel Island chain, which is disputed with Vietnam, three have harbors equipped for navy ships, four have smaller harbors and a fifth is being built according to a project under the American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. Six others can handle helicopter traffic, it said.

Natural sciences

But the undersea observation system did not start out as a military project. Discussions began in 2011, eventually drawing in heavyweights from China’s Earthquake Administration as well as offshore oil drilling firm CNOOC Group.

“It’s more a natural science than a social science project,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. Funding has been found and feasibility studies done, she said. “I think the military element is part of it, but the civilian part of it is not negligible for this project. At the minimum, if this system is deployed it will help China better collect info on both (seas).”

A June 2016 publication of the Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily quoted Chinese experts as saying their country needed an underwater research network to compete internationally. It cited Canada’s Northeast Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments observatory and the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative as peers.

The underwater observation network picked up new momentum in February last year when Chinese officials passed a law on deep seafloor exploration to tap minerals.

“The construction of the platform should be seen as part of a broader seafloor exploration and development strategy,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, associate researcher specialized in international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “So we can say that the platform is going to be the crown jewel of China’s seafloor program.

“The message is that China and its economic development are not limited by land, are not confined by the Great Wall, but are projecting themselves into the ocean, into China’s ocean,” he said.

Many claims to the sea

China claims about 95 percent of the South China Sea, a 3.5 million-square-kilometer body of water stretching from Taiwan southwest to Singapore. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines contest all or parts of Beijing’s claims as their own. They prize the sea for its fisheries, marine shipping lanes and prospects of undersea fossil fuel reserves.

The United States has no claim but passes vessels through the South China Sea and insists on freedom of navigation. China has moved since 2010 to militarize the sea, raising alarm in Washington and fears in Beijing that the U.S. government wants to curb Chinese expansion.

China’s landfilling of islets, construction of military facilities and the passage of Chinese vessels through disputed waters over the past five years have angered the Southeast Asian countries.

In the East China Sea, Beijing disputes a chain of uninhabited islands with Tokyo, which spotted Chinese warplanes nearby Thursday.

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