Chinese Navy Harvests Data from South China Sea

Zachary Haver
Chinese Navy Harvests Data from South China Sea Chinese navy meteorologists carry out observations on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in 2010.
Xinhua News

China’s new militarized outposts in the Spratly Islands and its expanded bases in the Paracel chain are helping harvest one of the South China Sea’s most valuable but least visible resources: data.

Research by the Chinese military and other documentation show that the collected data informs ongoing construction activities, helps improve naval weapons and underwater communications in the unique local environment, and could support amphibious landing operations in the future – among other uses.

This data is valuable because it allows the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to understand the elements that constitute the “ocean battlespace environment,” according to Ryan Martinson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.

“China needs to collect this information because it is used to build and improve models for how these elements of the ocean battlespace environment change under particular circumstances,” Martinson said.

Civilian government scientists and PLAN personnel stationed on these features collect different kinds of information, including hydrological, meteorological, bathymetric and tidal data.

In addition, scientific survey ships operated by state-run research organizations regularly probe the depths of the South China Sea, gathering biological samples, mapping the seafloor and scooping up sediments.

Continuing construction

This data has many uses, including facilitating ongoing Chinese construction activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing is locked in maritime and territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

In January, BenarNews reported that China was reclaiming additional land on the northern side of Woody Island, its main base in the Paracel Islands, and fortifying the island’s coast against erosion.

A satellite image from December 2020 shows new seawalls, jetties and other anti-erosion installments as well as newly reclaimed land along the northern coast of Woody island. [Planet Labs]

In preparation for this project, the Chinese Ministry of Transport’s Tianjin Research Institute for Water Transport Engineering agreed to simulate the erosion of the island’s coast using data gathered over several years, bidding documents indicate. The documentation offers a rare look at how China can leverage its long-term occupation of contested islands and reefs to collect and then exploit data in support of construction projects.

According to the materials reviewed by BenarNews, the institute was to synthesize multi-year bathymetric measurements, remote sensing imagery, hydrometeorological measurements and other data collected on Woody Island as well as data generated by previous construction projects in nearby waters. Bathymetry is the measurement of the sea’s depth while hydrometerology studies the water cycle as it relates to atmospheric processes.

The ocean battlespace environment

Data gathered from remote outposts also aid China’s naval operations in the South China Sea – and helps the Chinese military prepare for potential conflicts with other claimant states or outside rivals such as the United States.

For example, Martinson noted, tides, currents, wave height, temperature, wind and salinity are all subject to change.

“Being able to forecast these changes is very important to the PLAN because these elements directly affect naval operations, everything from basic navigation to weapons employment to ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance],” Martinson told BenarNews.

Publicly available research authored by engineers, meteorologists and other specialists affiliated with the PLA confirms the ongoing interest of the Chinese military in these environmental factors.

For example, in 2020 researchers from PLA Unit 61741 published a paper that addresses how the thermocline – the transition layer between warmer water near the ocean’s surface and cooler water deeper below – affects underwater communications and underwater vehicle concealment in the South China Sea.

A recent South China Sea-oriented study from experts at the PLA Naval Research Academy examines how ocean modeling can help analyze the impacts of “complex ocean mesoscale phenomena” on the effectiveness of naval weaponry and equipment.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Chinese academy focuses on technological research, the maritime environment, and defense engineering.

Other subjects explored by PLA researchers include how the South China Sea environment corrodes airborne electronic equipment and stainless steel, the mechanical properties of sand used for land reclamation in the South China Sea, and how to treat brain injuries sustained during naval combat in the South China Sea environment.

Expanding capabilities

The development of China’s bases in the South China Sea has long been intertwined with the collection of environmental data.

For example, after China occupied Woody Island – the largest natural feature in the Paracel chain – in the 1950s, it quickly established a meteorological station.

And according to a study published in The China Quarterly, Beijing used international meteorological data collection for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a pretext for establishing a permanent presence in the Spratlys in the late 1980s, initially building an observation post on Fiery Cross Reef.

From this observation post, PLAN meteorologists have measured factors such as wind direction, wind speed, temperature and tides every two hours every day for the past 30 years, Chinese state media reported.

And as China built massive artificial island bases in the Spratlys, its capacity to collect this data appears to have grown.

“In theory, more land area allows for installation of more and larger equipment,” Martinson told BenarNews.

Martinson also noted that China’s new facilities in the Spratly chain likely support the ships used to service and deploy surface and subsurface buoys, which China uses to monitor conditions over wide areas of water.

Additionally, these expanded outposts allow the PLAN to deploy more personnel in the Spratly islands, including meteorologists and engineers to help the Chinese military gather crucial data.

A technical diagram shows an “underwater surveying device and dynamic draft surveying instrument” designed by a PLAN engineer stationed in the Spratly islands. [Patent application by the Dalian Naval Academy and Wu Jingquan]

For instance, according to a 2020 report in PLA Daily, which is published by the Chinese military, a PLAN engineer stationed in the Spratly Islands, Wu Jingquan, has designed and patented measuring devices tailored to the local environmental conditions since 2018.

“Tides are an important factor influencing the ocean battlespace environment,” PLA Daily says, but the salinity and temperature of the waters in the Spratlys often affects tidal measurements, leading to errors

With support from his superiors, Wu set out to solve this problem, reportedly establishing multiple observation points on Fiery Cross Reef to collect tidal data on a day-to-day basis. He then used this data to construct a tidal data model, ultimately designing a new type of automatic tidal gauge that would be unaffected by salinity and temperature, PLA Daily says.

BenarNews obtained the patent application documents for two of Wu’s inventions: the aforementioned tidal gauge and an “underwater surveying device and dynamic draft surveying instrument” intended to aid ships carrying out bathymetric surveys.

“Tides are an especially important factor in amphibious operations. If you are trying to land on an island or bring a ship close to an island, you need to know how tides affect the water depth around the island at any given time,” Martinson said.


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