Below the surface of the South China Sea, Chinese firms use Western technology for possible dual-use projects, including for seabed observation and the laying of undersea cables, Kharon found.
Control of the sea, which has been the source of tension between China and its neighbors, and with the U.S., is a long-term policy of the government in Beijing. To that end, Chinese troops stationed in the South China Sea are learning battlefield English to avoid “misunderstandings and misjudgments” when engaging with foreign forces in the waterway, the South China Morning Post reported earlier this week, citing state-owned media.
The U.S. believes the sea should be “free and open,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement released in the days before leaving office, in which he reiterated U.S. policy rejecting China’s claims to the sea and imposing visa restrictions on those involved in China’s buildout. “All nations, regardless of military and economic power, should be free to enjoy the rights and freedoms guaranteed to them under international law,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo was among the former Trump administration officials sanctioned by China on Wednesday, hours after they left office. Though China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the sanctions applied to 28 people, its statement only included 10 by name.
Nevertheless, U.S. and U.K. technology is being used as China develops the National Seabed Scientific Observation Network, which monitors, stores data for and manages “the entire seabed scientific observation system,” according to the website of Tongji University, the project’s co-lead coordinator. The project has received RMB 2 billion (USD 292 million) in Chinese investment, according to a report by Xinhua News.
The observation network is capable of all-weather and real time HD multi-interface observation from seabed to surface, according to a media report. The network can also pass data it collects to other government departments to explore natural resources and protect China’s interests, a professor at Tongji University told the South China Morning Post in 2017.
Planned to cover both the East China Sea and South China Sea, the observation network was described in a November 2017 report from Haitong Securities, a China-based financial analysis firm, as possibly supplementing existing dual military and civil-use infrastructure in the South China Sea.
The project is part of China’s “maritime power strategy,” according to a press release from Hengtong Group, whose subsidiary Jiangsu Hengtong Marine Cable Systems Co., Ltd. is involved in the research and development center of the observation network. In the statement, the company mentioned prior experience developing similar technology for military use.
The issue of U.S. technology being used for dual purposes by Chinese firms comes as U.S. exports to Chinese military end users, or for military end use, are controlled under restrictions in place since June. And late last year, the U.S. Commerce Department began listing military end users (MEU) in Russia and in China to help with compliance. (Last week, another Chinese firm was added to the MEU list.)
The ocean dynamics observatory of the network uses instruments produced by U.S. manufacturers, according to a December 2019 journal article from the Institute of Acoustics (IOA) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. An ocean dynamics observatory provides data for marine research, which “plays a vital role in safeguarding marine rights, protecting ocean environment and strengthening national defense,” the journal article said. The difficulties of conducting research in the South China Sea necessitate an observatory equipped with specific instruments, according to the IOA article. The IOA is also a “legal entity” behind the observation network, alongside Tongji University.
In an October 2020 bid, the IOA sought to obtain a Tinsley 5903 Long Haul Submarine Cable Test Set, which is a system that locates cable faults, or cracks, in submarine cables. The winning supplier was China-based Shanghai Jian Long ROV Technology Co., Ltd. While it is unclear how Shanghai Jian Long acquired the product, the Tinsley 5903 “can only be purchased direct” from the company in the U.K. and notor through “certified international agents,” according to Tinsley Instrumentation’s website.
Tinsley Instrumentation was acquired in 2013 by U.K.-based Sifam Tinsley Instrumentation Limited. Tinsley has two agents in China: Beijing Develot M & C Co., Ltd. (now known as Beijing Hongen Holdings Co., Ltd.) and Suzhou Vecona Electric Co., Ltd.
The IOA was one of two entities that passed the qualification review for a separate October 2020 bid issued by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) for a subsea fixed underwater acoustic integrated measurement system. The second entity was the China State Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) 715th Research Institute, which was added in December to an export controls list by the U.S. Commerce Department for “acquiring and attempting to acquire U.S.-origin items in support of programs for the [PLA].”
Beyond the observation network, other Chinese undersea projects are also using Western technology, according to a review of tender data by Kharon.
The Shenyang Institute of Automation (SIA), which like the IOA, is also under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, issued multiple bids for U.S. and European technology in the past seven months, including a cloud computing platform and a 3D/4D sonar, according to tender documents.
The SIA is “a major producer of underwater robots to the Chinese military” and is “developing a series of extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles,” the South China Morning Post reported in July 2018. It was also one of seven entities that passed the pre-qualifications of an October 2020 bid issued by the PLA Navy for a missile landing zone measurement system.
The Tian Yi Hai Gong, a Chinese-flagged vessel, was reported to be working on submarine cables in the South China Sea between Chinese outposts in the Paracel Islands, according to a report in June 2020 by Radio Free Asia. The cables will likely have military uses and could strengthen China’s ability to detect submarines, experts told the outlet.
The vessel is owned by China-based Shanghai Fengjing Shipping Co., Ltd. and operated by China Submarine Cable Construction Co., Ltd., according to maritime records. China Submarine Cable purchased a license for a software system designed specifically to monitor and control the installation of submarine cables from a U.S.-based company, Makai Ocean Engineering, Inc., records show. China Submarine Cable Construction is still advertised as an owner of the software, according to Makai Ocean Engineering’s website.
Edmund Xu contributed to this report.