Maritime Matters

China in the Indian Ocean: Deep Sea Forays

03 Feb, 2014    ·   4286

Dr Vijay Sakhuja analyses the Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean and their ability to take them forward

China’s maritime ambitions are expanding and it is making forays into the deep seas beyond its waters. The State Oceanic Administration (SOA) has drawn plans to build scientific research vessels and mother ships for submersibles. Further, the scientific agenda for 2014 includes the 30th scientific expedition to Antarctica and 6th expedition to the Arctic. China will also dispatch its research vessels to the northwest Pacific to monitor radioactivity in international waters and its foray into the Indian Ocean would involve seabed resource assessment including the deployment of the 22-ton Jiaolong, China's first indigenously built manned deep-sea submersible. 
China’s scientific urge had driven its attention to seabed exploration. In the 1970s, it actively participated in the UN led discussions on seabed resource exploitation regime. At that time it did not possess technological capability to exploit seabed resources. In the 1980s, it dispatched ships to undertake hydrographic surveys of the seabed. On 5 March 1991, China registered with the UN as a Pioneer Investor of deep seabed exploitation and was awarded 300,000 square kilometers in the Clarion–Clipperton area in the Pacific Ocean. Soon thereafter, China Ocean Mineral Resources R & D Association (COMRA), the nodal agency for seabed exploration and exploitation of resources was established. In 2001, China obtained mining rights for poly-metallic nodule and in 2002, poly-metallic sulfide deposits in the Southwestern Indian Ocean. In 2011, COMRA signed a 15-year exploration contract with the International Seabed Authority (ISA) that entrusted it with rights to develop ore deposit in future. 
Although the Jiaolong has been built indigenously, it is useful to mention that the hull, advanced lights, cameras and manipulator arms of Jiaolong were imported and acquanauts had received training overseas. In August 2010, Jiaolong successfully positioned the Chinese flag at 3,700 meters under the sea in South China Sea and displayed China’s technological prowess in deep sea operations. China also possesses an unmanned deep-sea submarine Qianlong 1 (without cable) which can dive to 6,000 meters and an unmanned submersible Hailong (with cable) that can take samples from the seabed. As early as 2005, six Chinese acquanauts (five pilots and one scientist) had undergone deep sea dive training in the US. Currently, China has eight deep-sea submersible operators including six trainees (four men and two women) being trained at State Deep Sea Base in Qingdao on a 2-year course. 
China’s plans to deploy the manned deep-sea submersible Jiaolong in the Indian Ocean merits attention. The primary task for Jiaolong is to gather geological data, carry out assessment of seabed resources, record biodiversity for exploration and mining. However, China faces a number of technological challenges to develop undersea exploration and extraction systems and equipment. There are few external sources to obtain specialised equipment and a majority of the ‘geophysical surveying instruments on the international market are not allowed to be sold to China’ amidst fears that these highly sensitive sub-sea sensors could be used by the Chinese navy to develop underwater detection system particularly for the submarines.
It is not beyond the realm of imagination that Jiaolong can potentially monitor submarine cables which carry nearly 99 per cent of digital data and crisscross the Indian Ocean. It will be useful to mention that the undersea cables are prone to covert tapping and in the past, there have been a number of incidents when undersea cables were targeted. For instance in 1914, Great Britain dispatched a ship to cut Germany’s five trans-Atlantic submarine telegraph cables, and in 1917 it eavesdropped on a German communication to the Mexican government.  During the Cold War the US had undertaken tapping operation of the Soviet underwater cables and Operation Ivy Bell involved USS Halibut deployed in the Sea of Okhotsk to tap the Russian submarine communication cable between Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Soviet Pacific Fleet headquarters at Vladivostok. The ‘Five Eyes Alliance (United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand) is designed for eavesdropping on the network of cables which carry global phone calls and  internet traffic.  
Jiaolong can possibly monitor maritime and naval activity in the Indian Ocean. This fits well into China’s Indian Ocean strategy where its shipping remains vulnerable to a number of asymmetric threats and chalenges as also the regional navies that can disrupt the free flow of Chinese shipping from Africa and the Gulf region. Jiaolong can also monitor the US, UK, France and Indian nuclear submarine activity by trailing their radioactive signature. It is fair to argue that the deployment of the Jiaolong goes well beyond its scientific utility and supports the Chinese navy’s maritime strategy.