High-tech Chinese ships are mapping waters close to Papua New Guinea just as the United States and Australia begin upgrading a naval base on Manus Island.
- Chinese ships deployed to waters near Manus Island as Australia and US announce naval base upgrades
- The vessels are among a fleet increasing its surveys around the Philippines, Palau, Guam and Japan
- Experts believe the information could be crucial in any future maritime conflict
The deep-water Chinese scientific surveys are part of Beijing’s unprecedented oceanographic research of the Western Pacific, in an area experts believe could be crucial in any future maritime conflict with the US.
Military analysis of GPS satellite data reveals two Chinese research vessels entered PNG’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) north of Manus Island, just weeks after US Vice President Mike Pence announced a joint redevelopment of the ageing Lombrum naval base.
The ships involved, the Ke Xue and Hai Ce 3301, are part of a two-dozen strong Chinese “Distant-Ocean Research fleet” that has conducted expansive maritime surveys around the Philippines, Palau, Guam and Japan over the past two years.
According to a December 23 report seen by the ABC, the “even spacing between legs in Papua New Guinea’s EEZ indicates bathymetric data collection” taking place.
Senior Australian and American military officials acknowledge the oceanographic surveys are entirely lawful, but believe the civilian ships are also gathering invaluable data for future defence operations.
“The information gained for resource purposes has dual use for military purposes,” one long-serving Australian defence official has told the ABC, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“Establishing the baseline data around what the seabed is made out of, what the seabed terrain is like, the salinity and what thermal layers exist in the water is useful for mining but it also helps determine the acoustic conditions for submarine operations.
“You can hide under thermal layers and you are harder to locate amongst the clutter of rocky jagged sea beds — throw in measurements of ambient noise levels of the ocean from, of all things, snapping shrimp in tropical waters, and you start to build a really useful set of mission planning data.”
Officially the Australian Defence Department is saying little about the Chinese oceanographic activity, except to note that “our region hosts a high volume of maritime traffic, including military and other state vessels, from a range of nations”.
“International law permits the conduct of marine scientific research in international waters, within certain parameters, provided that activities do not infringe on the rights of other states or unjustifiably interfere with other legitimate uses of the sea,” a department spokesperson told the ABC.
Beijing insists missions are scientific and entirely lawful
China’s military has received a lot of attention in recent years for its activities in the South China Sea and beyond the “First Island Chain”, which stretches from Taiwan down to Malaysia and Vietnam.
Now Chinese civilian ships are increasingly being deployed beyond the mostly US-aligned “Second Island Chain”, and according to the US Naval War College the scale of Beijing’s investment in these operations now dwarfs that of any other country.
A US Naval College report from November 2018 concludes “China’s out-of-area oceanographic research activities raise a number of concerns for US policymakers”.
In response to questions from the ABC, China’s Foreign Ministry insists its rapidly expanding oceanographic mapping activities are all conducted within international law and are helping global scientific understanding.
“China’s oceanographic, scientific research in the Western Pacific is totally in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and made contributions to maritime scientific study,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
“We hope every country can put in perspective China’s scientific research activity and refrain from disturbing the normal cooperation for maritime research and study between China and other countries,” he added.
Retired admiral says Chinese surveys on similar scale to USSR’s operations
A retired two-star admiral who once headed Australia’s Border Protection Command believes Chinese mapping of the world’s oceans is now on the same scale as Soviet maritime operations during the height of the Cold War.
“It’s very similar to the pattern of Soviet Union behaviour in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and the Soviets’ knowledge of the world’s oceans was really quite enormous,” says Rear Admiral James Goldrick.
The former naval officer, who is now an adjunct professor at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, says the full extent of China’s maritime surveys in this region is still not known.
“Chinese naval intelligence gatherers will not be shining a (GPS satellite) beacon, they’re not required to by law, and of course it’s quite possible some of the government-owned ships aren’t always radiating on their beacons to show where they are and who they are.”
Australian army engineers deployed to Manus Island to begin naval base upgrade
Last month, Defence chiefs from Australia and Papua New Guinea met in Canberra to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, which will guide the joint upgrade of the Lombrum Naval Base.
In late February, members of the Australian Army’s 19th Chief Engineer Works unit began working with PNG counterparts on initial master plans for the soon-to-be-developed facility.
The Federal Government says the increased cooperation at the PNG Defence Force base in Manus Province is a “natural extension of our longstanding and collaborative Defence partnership”.
The scale of the US commitment is not yet clear and last year Mr Pence did not say how much money the Trump administration would contribute to the project, or whether American vessels would be permanently based at Lombrum.