top of page
  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Report: China’s ocean exploration a pretext for naval power building

Report says at least seven research vessels operated around Guam, CNMI, Palau and Micronesia in October 2017


On Jan. 4, officials of the Federated States of Micronesia along with Chinese diplomats and scientists gathered aboard China’s research vessel KeXue, marking the first in a series of events to celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations.

KeXue is the “platform for researchers to address the world’s most pressing marine science issues,” said Prof. Wang Fan, director of the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Oceanology, which operates the top-of-the-line research ship.

Lending China’s ocean-research technology to the FSM, Wang said, is aimed at strengthening the two countries’ “comprehensive strategic partnership” and “connectivity under the China-Pacific Framework to carry out exchanges in marine science research and ocean protection, aquaculture and cooperation.”

With arms wide open, the FSM welcomed KeXue — which means “science”— into its exclusive economic zone. “It’s very interesting and perhaps fitting that the name of this ship is science. And it’s also fitting that this ship has a very important mandate to study the ocean,” FSM Foreign Affairs Secretary Lorin S. Robert said.

The FSM, which has adopted One-China policy, is among the recipients of China’s largesse. And as it braces for the 2023 termination of U.S. grants under the Compact of Free Association, the FSM is relying on China to be its alternative financial refuge. Science diplomacy adds another layer to their bilateral relations.


But what lurks behind China’s touted goodwill brings anxiety to the United States. As far as the U.S. military is concerned, it’s a Trojan horse.


But what lurks behind China’s touted goodwill brings anxiety to the United States. As far as the U.S. military is concerned, it’s a Trojan horse. Marine science is tied to Beijing’s ambition to transform China into a “maritime power, which is largely an economic concept,” according to a maritime report released in November 2018 by the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

The report titled “China’s Distant-Ocean Survey Activities: Implications for U.S. National Security,” was prepared by Ryan D. Martinson and Peter A. Dutton, core members of the China Maritime Studies Institute.

Martinson and Dutton said China has been investing in marine scientific research on a massive scale to support its hidden agenda: the expansion of its maritime development space.

“On any given day, 5-10 Chinese ‘scientific research vessels’ may be found operating beyond Chinese jurisdictional waters in strategically-important areas of the Indo-Pacific,” the report said.

“Overshadowed by the dramatic growth in China’s naval footprint, their presence largely goes unnoticed. Yet, the activities of these ships and the scientists and engineers they embark have major implications for U.S. national security.”

In January last year, the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences disclosed that research vessels are equipped with acoustic sensors that can pick up acoustic signatures more than 620 miles away, putting them within range of Guam, the major strategic U.S. naval base at Apra Harbor. Publicly available records show these ships commonly operate in the huge EEZ of Guam and the Federated States of Micronesia.

In previous decades, the report said, China’s oceanographic surveys — while largely driven by military and sovereignty objectives— were almost entirely confined within the First Island Chain, in waters often referred to as the “near seas.”

“However, the current scale of activities is without precedent in Chinese history,” the report said. A review of China’s oceanographic research activities listed 11 research vessels that operated out-of-area in October 2017— seven of them were spotted within the territorial waters of Guam, Northern Marianas, Palau and Micronesia. Their movements were documented.

On Oct. 1, Dong Fang Hong 2 steamed south of Japan’s Kyushu Island into a lengthy cruise that would take it from the high seas of the North Pacific to Micronesia’s EEZ.

In mid-October, Xiang Yang Hong 10 operated in Micronesia’s EEZ and southwest of Guam. Around the same time, Dayang 1 appeared west of Guam, remaining in the Philippine Sea for two weeks before heading back to its home port of Qingdao on Nov. 1. Dayang 1 is formerly a Soviet survey ship purchased by China from Russia in 1994.

The Guangzhou Marine Geological Survey ship Haiyang 6 spent the first half of October operating in the high seas north of Micronesia, in waters where China maintains contract rights with the International Seabed Authority to explore for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

During the same period, a China Coast Guard cutter (1307) escorted Xiang Yang Hong 09 — the mother ship of the deep-sea submersible Jiaolong — which operated in an area west of the Mariana Islands. From Oct. 14 to 16, the pair sailed to a position southwest of Guam, presumably for operations in the Mariana Trench, where engineers from the Xi'an Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics and the Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology conducted extensive testing of underwater optics technologies.

In the second half of October, KeXue operated in the Philippine Sea, including within the EEZs of Palau and Indonesia.

“China’s distant-ocean survey activities may be a leading indicator of China’s evolving naval strategy,” the report said. “The bulk of China’s out-of-area research activities occur in the strategically important waters between the First and Second Island Chains of the Western Pacific. Some take place in the large section of high seas in the Philippine Sea, where Chinese vessels can conduct marine scientific research without permission from any coastal state.”

The Naval College study found that China’s “comprehensive research vessels” can perform a wide range of research activities, and principally serve as platforms for instruments, sensors, underwater vehicles and other equipment for collecting oceanic and atmospheric data.


In January last year, the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences disclosed that research vessels are equipped with acoustic sensors that can pick up acoustic signatures more than 620 miles away, putting them within range of Guam, the major strategic U.S. naval base at Apra Harbor.


The acoustics and other sensors direct sound waves into the water column. Returning echoes provide information on the direction and speed of undersea currents. “Multi-beam echo sounders use pulses of sound to obtain precise measurements of ocean depth,” the report said. “This data can then be used to determine the contours, or bathymetry, of the seabed.”

Chinese research vessels were also found to have moored surface and subsurface buoys in the Challenger Deep trough at the northwest section of Micronesia’s EEZ. These buoys are equipped with instruments that record environmental data that are either transmitted back to China via satellite communications, or stored for later recovery and analysis.

“Several interests drive the Chinese government’s investment in out-of-area oceanographic research. Two of the main drivers have the greatest significance for U.S. national security. These include a desire to 1) explore and ultimately exploit seabed resources in high seas areas and 2) support the development of China’s blue-water naval capabilities,” the report said.

The report said these water activities also serve as “tools with which to assert China’s maritime rights and interests.” The Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority has granted China rights to explore for seabed minerals in four contract zones including one east of Guam, two southeast of Hawaii, and one southeast of Madagascar, which are “strategically important locations.”

As “ambassadors of goodwill,” Chinese oceanographers also serve political functions. “Their efforts to forge closer ties with other coastal states in the Indo-Pacific could create good will that Beijing can leverage in times and circumstances where U.S. and Chinese interests collide,” the report said.

The Martinson-Dutton report said the scale of Beijing’s investment in oceanographic operations now dwarfs that of any other country, including the United States. From 19 vessels in 2012, China’s fleet grew to 50 by the end of 2017. This number does not include the five large hulls owned by the China Geologic Survey and 10 new research ships currently in various stages of design and construction.

But while the quantity of China’s research ships is “unsurpassed,” the quality of marine science in China still trails that of the United States, the report said. It cited Chinese scientists’ own public admission that their research is still hampered by insufficiency of basic data and a shortfall of well-trained scientists.

However, Martinson and Dutton advised that given the pace of China’s ship expansions in the last 15 years, “U.S. policymakers would be foolish to assume Beijing cannot overcome these challenges.”


bottom of page