PRC’s newest South China Sea effort: ocean E-stations
Already embroiled in territorial disputes with its South China Sea neighbors, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is installing a series of so-called “ocean E-stations” to gather intelligence and control the sea by using information technology, a new research report said.
The report, written in December 2018 by Johns Hopkins University senior researcher J. Michael Dahm, said a new structure on Bombay Reef identified by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in November 2018 is likely a fixed surveillance platform that is “being developed by the Chinese government to aid in the exploration, exploitation and control of the maritime environment using information technology.”
State-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corp. (CETC) developed two types of E-stations, which are meant to “expand information collection and communication networks created by China’s South China Sea islands and outposts,” the report said.
One E-station, called the Island Reef Information System, is likely the type installed on Bombay Reef. Dahm, who worked for 25 years as a U.S. naval intelligence officer, said the platform is designed for an uninhabited reef in up to 10 meters of water. A second type, called an Anchored Floating Platform Information System, has the same capabilities but can be deployed in water between 60 and 400 meters deep.
The PRC has deployed as many as five floating E-stations in the South China Sea, according to CETC representatives and China’s Maritime Safety Administration. Company brochures said the E-stations can conduct electronic surveillance, assist maritime communication, aid in search-and-rescue efforts and monitor the ocean environment.
The effort to establish greater connectivity in the South China Sea hinges on the belief that “having greater surveillance and connectivity will reduce risk for Chinese maritime interests and, potentially, enable greater control over the maritime environment,” the report said.
Constant surveillance by these unmanned stations, the report added, could eventually replace patrols by the PRC’s coast guard or navy. (Pictured: An aerial view shows a reef in the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea.)
In a sea already fraught with legal disputes concerning the PRC’s territorial claims, the E-stations could pose even more legal questions. They could be categorized as navigational buoys, the report said, or because they are anchored platforms and not associated with a “high- or low-tide feature, are they more akin to an off-shore oil platform, essentially an unmanned vessel flying a Chinese flag?”
Either way, their deployment “may have opened a new chapter in the international debate over matters of sovereignty, legality and control in the South China Sea,” the report said.
Dahm’s report comes after the U.S. in November 2018 asked the PRC to remove its missiles from artificial islands in the South China Sea.
“The United States called on China to withdraw its missile systems from disputed features in the Spratly Islands, and reaffirmed that all countries should avoid addressing disputes through coercion or intimidation,” the U.S. statement said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo elaborated after a meeting with Chinese officials.
“We have continued concerns about China’s activities and militarization in the South China Sea,” he said, according to a report in the Asia Times newspaper. “We pressed China to live up to its past commitments [not to militarize disputed land features] in this area.”