China hastens Indo-Pacific sea bed mapping

It is essential that the satellite launch, seabed mapping and record dive feat by China are not seen in complete isolation, rather in conjecture with Beijing’s militaristic ambitions to block India in its own backyard as it initiates conflicts along the LAC

New Delhi: While the world’s attention was primarily focused on watching the Chinese-initiated conflict unfolding in the Indian territory of Galwan valley, Beijing claimed to have achieved three scientific breakthroughs set to galvanize the Indo-Pacific.

Two weeks back, Chinese state-run media published reports of Beijing has set a new record for the world’s deepest dive, reaching a depth of 10,907-metres under the Pacific Ocean surface of the Mariana Trench. The report also mentioned of a marine engineering team from Beijing having completed the seabed mapping of the dragon vent field – an underwater trijunction area located between the Antarctic, Australasian, and African tectonic plates – in the Indian Ocean.  

In the same time frame, China successfully deployed a civilian-operated oceanography satellite in the orbit. State-controlled media claimed that the satellite is placed at polar orbit inclined 98.4 degrees to the equator. Traditional Chinese-language news reports read that the Haiyang 1D satellite carried five instrument payloads. The satellite is said to observe and capture images of coastal and deep-sea waters, as well as detect-trace identification signals from ships.

According to reports, the Haiyang 1D is the fourth satellite in the Haiyang 1-series, which will operate in tandem with Haiyang 1C. The Haiyang satellite series is named after the Mandarin word for the ocean.

Target South China Sea

Speaking to TheNews21, former Indian Navy commander, and director of the Pune-based Maritime Research Centre, Dr. Arnab Das said that the maritime and space developments surrounding the Indo-Pacific are huge strategic capacity building steps. He claimed that these steps will have ramifications in terms of effective Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) in the tropical littoral waters of the IOR and the South China Sea (SCS).

Underscoring the importance of the seabed mapping, Das claimed that it would allow the PLA Navy to send an enhanced payload of sensors to even such depths and provide confidence to explore the undersea domain in the strategic locations of the Indo-Pacific.

An acoustic expert, Das said that having a high-resolution seabed data would allow the Chinese to effectively deploy underwater systems including Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) in the IOR and SCS.

“Such systems can always be deployed for military purposes of surveillance and also to surprise your adversaries. China has demonstrated their serious intentions to develop UDA capabilities in the tropical littoral waters of SCS and the IOR,” Das said while adding that even the west is a no match against Beijing’s capabilities.

Drawing concerns over India’s acoustics capacity and capability building measures for effective UDA framework in the IOR, Das feared that it could well become an Achilles’ heel for New Delhi.

Also Read: Britain, Russia, Japan must intervene in Balochistan

“The IOR is our backyard and with China having an edge over us in our own backyard could be a massive strategic blunder,” he said while stressing that maritime capacity building can probably deter China from misadventures in the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and India could shift the confrontation far away into the vulnerable points in the SCS.

Deep-sea Military Explorations

The spread of IOR and SCS are too vast and complex for India to protect its interests alone. Thus, advocating a premium on partnerships, Namrata Hasija, a research fellow at the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, exhorted on capacity building with ASEAN countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore.

“Capacity building is extremely important for now, India had not realized that China’s aggressive SCS policy might spill over to the IOR,” Hasija said.

Talking about the new dive-record set by Beijing, Hasija directed that the development cannot be viewed in isolation as China has become the select few countries to have submersibles.

“The militaries of the west have been using submersibles for clandestine special forces operations. This is important when China has a maritime dispute with many countries in South China but it wants to rule the IOR as well. I guess it is easy to link all this up as to how it can be used in the future even though the current mission marks the start of a five-year trial period for the Jiaolong (Chinese submersible) before it goes into regular operation,” Hasija said. She projected that the deep-sea explorations capabilities, which also yield military information, are intended to enhance the operational effectiveness of PLA Navy deployments in the IOR.

Speaking on the gliding underwater Chinese behemoths in the IOR and the reports of them docking in Pakistan, Hasija said that it once again reaffirmed Beijing’s will to remain an important player in IOR. “Let us not forget that Chinese submarines have been in this region under the garb of Anti-Piracy mission and their development of Gwadar port as a base coupled with the information that China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning speaks loudly that it is just not an innocent data collection mission,” Hasija stressed.

Tradecraft: Fishing Trawlers and Buoys

In 2013, the Japanese government had pulled China over strategically placing several buoys in the East China Sea near a group of disputed islands. Soon, reports came thick and strong from Tokyo, that the buoys were used to track Japanese submarines in waters around the uninhabited islands, where Japanese and Chinese ships were playing cat and mouse.

“This tradecraft still continues. The Chinese fishing trawlers are basically military intelligence vessels with weapons which drop fishnet buoys in the water. A few days after these buoys have been dropped, one can start noticing a heightened presence of PLA Navy in the same waters,” Japanese journalist-turned-activist Shun Fujiki told TheNews21.

As per a report published in an influential English-language newspaper, since 2015 on an average around 500 Chinese trawlers were seen casting nets in the eastern waters, and around 32,250 incidents per year were recorded by the Indian Navy.

Speaking to TheNews21, sources in the Indian Coast Guard said that yellow-colored fishnet buoys floating adrift on the horizon of waters around the Andaman-Nicobar Islands have now become an everyday scene. There have also been recorded sightings of these buoys washing ashore the uninhabited islands in the Bay of Bengal.

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