East China Sea: Why giant Chinese territory marker may be leagues above old buoy network

Stephen Chen, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 19 2021 03:35 PM

Japan Coast Guard vessel PS206 Houou sails in front of Uotsuri island, one of the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea August 18, 2013. Ruairidh Villar, Reuters/File Photo

China has added a new giant buoy to a marine surveillance network used partly to strengthen the country’s territorial claims in the disputed East China Sea – dubbed a “buoys’ graveyard” after several were lost or damaged through accidents and vandalism as several nations vie for regional influence.

Deployed this month at an unspecified location in the East China Sea – some of which is also claimed by Japan and South Korea – the 15-metre-wide platform will fill a gap in a buoy network used to collect data, according to a statement on Monday by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

The new buoy will help China better prepare for challenges such as environmental protection, extreme weather and territorial disputes with neighbouring countries, according to researchers involved in the project.

An important function of the Chinese network is to mark out territory over which China is in dispute with Japan and South Korea, according to its operator, the State Oceanic Administration of China (SOA), which estimates the disputed waters at a combined 340 sq km (131 square miles) – more than half of the East China Sea.


“The buoy deployment locations [in the East China Sea] cover areas of territorial disputes and other sensitive activities to meet the demand of data collection for rights protection and to demonstrate the sovereignty of our country,” said an introduction to the network by SOA researchers in a domestic journal in 2014.

Cameras and other sensors on buoys in disputed waters will alert Chinese naval and law enforcement agencies if other parties make what is deemed an intrusion, so that they can move into position to thwart it, the SOA said.

Such buoys can also collect data to improve early detection of natural disasters, being placed in the potential path of typhoons, and can monitor nutrients in the water.

Among marine scientists, however, the East China Sea is known as a “buoys’ graveyard”. For centuries, it has been a busy fishing ground for Japanese, Korean and Chinese vessels. Some expensive buoys deployed there by countries in the region, and by others including the United States, have been damaged – often through accidents involving fishing boats, but sometimes by vandalism, with expensive on-board equipment sometimes removed.

The US used to have the largest number of buoys in waters around China, as part of its strategy to counter China’s expansionist approach with its “first island chain”, a defence network comprising a large number of military bases stretching between South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

But in recent years the scale of China’s ocean surveillance network is believed to have exceeded the American presence in the region. 

The Chinese government has claimed to have established a monitoring network in the South China Sea “greater than any other country”.

China’s known number of buoys in the East China Sea tripled to 27 between 2014 and 2019, with nearly half positioned in disputed waters, according to the SOA.
The new 15-metre buoy is larger than most surveillance buoys worldwide, with the largest US buoy being 12 metres wide.

“The commissioning of this facility put an end to the absence of long-term, fixed-point, real-time water profile observation in the offshore waters of our country by enhancing the observation capabilities of the Donghai [East China Sea] Surveillance Network,” the CAS statement said.

As China’s largest, most comprehensive and smartest data collection platform for marine observation and experiments, the new 15-metre buoy is better equipped to prevent interference, according to the researchers. It has been guarded by three sentry buoys, each moored to the sea floor and carrying solar-powered lighthouses to keep fishing boats at a safe distance.

The main buoy’s size should make it less susceptible to damage in a collision with a fishing boat, researchers said, because its sensors can detect trespassers and send images to a Chinese command post on land.

Smaller buoys’ data collection capability is limited, and gaps between data collection points can detract from the accuracy of estimates used in computer modelling for scientific research and naval activities. A submarine can use such data to avoid running into a rapid current that could drag it to deadly depths.

Thanks to its size, the 15-metre buoy collects data with a robotic platform able to move up and down between the water's surface and the sea floor, enabling it to capture an underwater environment with unprecedented resolution and continuity and beam data to a communication satellite overhead. Its daily operations are run mostly by artificial intelligence.

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