China to build system in two disputed seas 'for data, national security'

HONG KONG • China is planning to build a massive underwater observation system that will cover the disputed South China Sea and East China Sea, reports said yesterday.

The 2 billion yuan (S$403 million) seabed observation system will provide real-time information about environmental conditions and seabed activities at a time when China is expanding its presence in both seas, said the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

The Chinese central government recently approved the plan, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

It is estimated that it will take five years to build the system and implement the plan.

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A data centre will be built in Shanghai to monitor and store the chemical, biological and geological information collected from the underwater systems.

Such systems would not only help China advance in scientific research and disaster prevention, but also help protect national security, CCTV said.

Professor Zhou Huaiyang from the School of Marine and Earth Science at Tongji University was quoted as saying that the collected data could be passed on to other government departments.

He said the information may be used in exploring natural resources and protecting China's maritime interests and national security.

But the move is likely to cause alarm among China's neighbours as it continues to strengthen its civilian and military presence in the South China Sea, reported SCMP.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have competing claims in the South China Sea, through which an estimated US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) worth of goods are transported each year.

Beijing has rapidly built up reefs in the South China Sea into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.

The United States has challenged the annexation of these islets and advocated a diplomatic settlement to the disputes, arguing that Beijing's actions threaten freedom of navigation and overflight.

The system, which will also be installed in the East China Sea, is also likely to anger China's regional rival Japan.

Both China and Japan claim a group of uninhabited islands controlled by Tokyo in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2017, with the headline 'China to build system in two disputed seas 'for data, national security''. Print Edition | Subscribe