China’s Focused Drive at Enhancing Ocean Surveillance

China’s use of marine capability is upending long-standing notions about how maritime power is wielded in peacetime. The China Marine Surveillance (CMS) - the national ocean monitoring agency - recently announced plans to buy 36 inspection ships over the next five years and hire more than 1,000 people in the next few months, raising the strength of employees to more than 10,000. In a statement issued on May 2, 2011, the Director of the CMS outlined the agency’s perspective plans with respect to expansion of capability. China’s present complement of 300 marine surveillance ships, he noted, are insufficient to carry out regular sea patrols and a need is being felt to strengthen law enforcement in Chinese-related waters to safeguard the country's marine rights. He also hinted that new and advanced equipment might be installed in the inspection fleet to improve capacity.

Towards a Greater Marine Surveillance Capability

The CMS, created in 1998, is a paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency of the State Oceanic Administration of the People’s Republic of China. Officially, the force is responsible for enforcing laws and order within China’s territorial waters, exclusive economic zones (EEZ), and shore, protect maritime environment, natural resources, navigation aids and other facilities, and to carry out maritime surveys. More practically, the CMS is a major force multiplier for the PLAN that virtually subcontracts the arduous surveillance activity to the marine agency that also doubles as a search and rescue force in an emergency.

The addition of equipment, platforms and personnel at the CMS, though significant, is just one of the many proactive measures Chinese authorities have taken towards augmenting maritime surveillance in the seas surrounding China. On April 22, 2011, a large surveillance ship called the "China Maritime Surveillance 26" was added to the agency’s fleet in a bid to enhance protection of the country's maritime interests. The patrol ship - the second such platform to be added in the last eight months - weighs more than 1,000-tonnes, and is now part of the North Sea Fleet of the China Maritime Surveillance Force in Qingdao, in China's Shandong Province. Its surveillance capability is pronounced, but significantly the depiction of the ship’s role in official reports goes well beyond “preventing violations of China's maritime interests and protection of the marine environment”, to also include “investigation of submarine resources and sea floor facilities”.

The State Council - China's cabinet – had, in 1999, announced plans to increase the CMS’ fleet of 1000 tonnes-plus sea patrol ships. The ‘CMS 26’ is but a small part of a 1.6-billion-yuan ($ 246 million) plan to increase the force strength by 13 more ships and 05 patrol helicopters .Of these, 10 ships and 05 helicopters have already been procured, with the remaining three ships expected to be put into use by June 2011. CMS-75, a ship reported to be the fleet's fastest with a maximum sailing range of 5,000 nautical miles, joined the fleet in October, 2010 and is now deployed in the South China Sea.

Marine Observation Satellites

Meanwhile China has been ramping up its maritime observation capability through ocean satellites. Maritime surveillance, prioritized at the national level under China's 863 State High-Technology Development Plan, is receiving significant funding. Over the past decade, China has launched two Haiyang (Ocean) maritime observation satellites, and has also recently expanded its fleet of Yaogan satellites, which China describes as merely engaging in civilian earth observation missions. These have however been identified by experts as dual role, military reconnaissance satellites and are said to carry a mix of optical as well as radar-based sensors. According to Associate Professor Andrew Erickson with the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, one of these satellites, Yaogan-7, is supposed to have optical sensors and Yaogan 8 appears to be equipped with synthetic aperture radars (SAR) that offers wide coverage at sufficient resolution. Yaogan satellites 9 A, 9B, 9C are, reportedly, the most capable satellites as they fly in a formation, which suggests that they function as some form of naval ocean surveillance system (NOSS).

These additions to China’s surveillance capability assume significant in the backdrop of China’s bitter rows with Japan over a disputed Diaoyu island chain (Senkaku Islands in Japan) and its insistence that it has complete sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea – a claim that is contested strongly by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

There is growing concern that as China’s military prowess increases, an improved and more effective ability to monitor all activity in the neighbouring seas might severely curtail the freedom that other nations enjoy of using sea-routes for innocent passage. For those locked in conflict with China over Islands on the South China Sea and East Sea, the development is even more portentous, as it implies a de-facto control of the contested territories by China. Many nations have been watching the middle kingdom’s military build-up, particularly its naval reach into the South China Sea with a heightened sense of anxiety.

Maritime Surveillance: A New Expanded Definition

Watching China, it is slowly becoming clear that Maritime surveillance is no longer just about the ability to detect enemy ships, aircraft, submarines and supersonic anti-ship missiles over a large blue-water expanse. Rather, it now has a more expansive mandate that includes surveillance, constabulary, and counter-terrorism. Threats in the maritime safety and security domain have changed radically from the old challenges posed by illegal fishing, smuggling and privacy, and maritime surveillance must now provide the first line of defence against terrorism and similar threats. But principally, the capability to observe and detect threats must be aimed at keeping a sharp eye on the Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ). In these troubled times, when geo-strategic jostling in the oceans for influence and space is on the rise, an effective surveillance capability helps enforce one’s interpretation of rights within this perceived region of maritime interest. But more significantly, it provides flexibility of response and confers an operational advantage. The recent Chinese acquisitions exemplify this trend.

Seeing the rapid growth of its capabilities, China’s neighbours and other regional powers will certainly see the imperative of possessing an effective surveillance capability. In times to come there will expectedly be a renewed urgency and purposefulness in responding suitably to the challenge.

(This article first appeared in the SP’s Naval Forces Newsletter, June-July 2011 edition)
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