The world begins to keep an eye on China’s shady maritime maneuvers

A vessel, part of a fleet of hundreds of illegal Chinese fishing boats, sails in international waters of the Pacific Ocean near Chile’s exclusive economic maritime zone, off the coast of Arica and the Parinacota region, in a photo taken in November 2020 (Reuters) (CHILEAN NAVY /)

In January 2021, a Chinese fishing fleet approached the coast of Oman, apparently in search of squid. According to the ships’ automatic identification transponders, they were standing just outside the Exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Oman, which gives it control of fishing rights up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its shores. But the radio signals from the ships, detected by commercial satellites, told another story. They indicated that the vessels were fishing within the EEZs of Oman in an alleged illegal raid on the valuable squid populations of the gulf state.

This was one of the first demonstrations of a new tool used by the United States and its allies to help discover the China’s illegal or aggressive activities at sea. They are contracting with private companies to provide governments across the Indo-Pacific region near real-time data, collected from space, to help them monitor coastal waters and more effectively use their limited naval and Coast Guard resources.

The data is provided within the framework of the initiative Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awarenesseither IPMDAlaunched in May 2022 at the second summit of leaders of the “Quadrilateral”, a block formed by USA, Australia, India and Japan. It is now one of the clearest examples of how that group is trying to add substance to its rhetoric about defending a Indo-Pacific “free and open” in the face of Chinese military and economic coercion.

But it also highlights the sensitivities of a region where many countries are concerned about military activity and the Chinese illegal fishingbut are reluctant to challenge it directly or be drawn into its escalating confrontation with USA. The Chinese government has already indicated that it sees the ipmda as part of an effort led by USA for “build small cliques and stoke confrontation en bloc” against China.

When the leaders of the Quad met again in May 2023, stated that the IPMDA was already providing data to governments of the Southeast Asian and the Peacefuland that would be extended to Indian Ocean in the coming months. They avoided mentioning Chinastressing instead the usefulness of the data to combat the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishingand to respond to humanitarian crises.

However, at a security conference the following month, US and allied military commanders stressed the strategic importance of the information-sharing program through “fusion centers” of data in India, Singapore, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. These hubs have been around for a few years, but have not shared data fast enough or in sufficient detail. Governments have also been reluctant to share classified information.

The architecture is there”, declared the admiral john aquilinocommander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, at a round table in June. “Detection capacity needs to be increased and shared” in the Indian Ocean region, he said, suggesting that a maritime security center in Oman could be included.

In the same pane, Vikram Misri, India Deputy National Security Adviserstated that the fusion center located on the outskirts of Delhi it had already exchanged data with more than 22 countries and hosted liaison officers from nearly a dozen. The Admiral Pierre VandierChief of Staff of the French Navy, called for combining military and civilian tools, and suggested incorporating another data center in Madagascar to help cover the southern Indian Ocean.

Chinese fishing boats ready to set sail for international waters moored at the Gaoqi fishing port in Xiamen, China last July (Reuters)
Chinese fishing boats ready to sail into international waters moored at the Gaoqi fishing port in Xiamen, China last July (Reuters) (STRINGER /)

Chinese experts, for their part, affirm that the IPMDA is designed to discredit the maritime activities of Chinaespecially those of its vast fishing fleet, which has been accused of illegal operations around Africa, South America and the pacific islands. According to Wasof the Peking Universitythe Quad program will soon be extended to Chinese coast guard and navy vessels.

Western defense experts have also highlighted the military applications of IPMDA. “Develops an organizational infrastructure and surveillance practices that Quad and their partners could reuse for military operations, including surveillance of a Chinese move against Taiwan,” the US government stated in July. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Evaluations, a Washington-based think tank. He suggested increasing the program with drones.

The officials of the Quad they are reluctant to say exactly which countries see the data. But the US vice president, Kamala Harrisrevealed that Philippines he was among them when he visited the country in November. This country has revitalized its alliance with USA in recent years, largely in response to the efforts of China for asserting their maritime claims in the South China Seawhich are disputed Philippines and four other Southeast Asian countries.

One of the challenges for these countries is that Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels help enforce maritime claims, but often disable transponders from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that transmit your identity and location. At other times, Chinese ships transmit “false” data, manipulated to be inaccurate. In recent years, Chinese survey vessels have also operated in the Indo-Pacific without transmitting AIS data.

Even Chinese freighters are now harder to track by conventional methods since 2021when many stopped transmitting data AIS after the approval of a new law that, according to China, was necessary to thwart foreign intelligence gathering. However, they are emerging new means of ocean monitoring thanks to private satellite operators offering services including high-resolution photography, radio frequency tracking and synthetic aperture radar. Artificial intelligence also enables much faster analysis of these data and images..

The view from the heights

Among the contractors IPMDA it’s found Hawk Eye 360a company based in Virginia founded in 2015. It operates a constellation of 21 low earth orbit satellites that monitor the radio frequency signals of the navigation, safety and communication equipment used by ships even if the ais transponders are deactivated. This information can be cross-referenced with satellite images and other data to identify and locate vessels.

Hawk Eye 360 claims to have used your data to help identify Chinese vessels suspected of illegal fishing off Ecuador in 2020as well as the squid fishing fleet near Oman in 2021. It has also tracked Chinese coast guard vessels in disputed areas of the South China Sea. Currently, its satellites can cover about 10 million square kilometers in a single pass, and another group can return to the same area in about 60 minutes, he says. John Serafini, Executive Director of the company. Transmission of data to clients can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, he adds.

The company declined to specify the value of its contract with the IPMDA, but said it provides the data directly to the US government, which then distributes it to program participants. In addition, the Australian government contracted Hawk Eye 360 in July to provide your data to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agencywhich helps its 17 member countries manage their tuna stocks.

This agency is based in the Solomon Islandswhich caused alarm among US and allied officials in 2022 when they signed a security agreement with China which they fear could lead to a Chinese military base there. China and the solomon deny such plans, but USA and its main regional ally, Australiahave since expanded their diplomatic contacts with the pacific islands and have offered to boost financial and military assistance.

The hope of Western officials is that if they focus their efforts on the illegal fishing and in other areas that really concern the nations of the Indo-Pacificthey will gain greater support for US and allied efforts to counter China. Whether this will alter Chinese behavior is another question: fishing and territorial claims are sensitive issues for their leaders. But shedding light on the shady maritime maneuvers seems like a good starting point.

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