Circuits and Steel: China’s Muscle in the South China Sea


Technological advance has long had a utopian promise. We are told that, with it, we can defeat climate change, lengthen life expectancy, end world hunger and bring about peace between nations, uniting people through increased connection. Unfortunately, wherever that utopia is hiding, we have yet to find the pesky thing.

In the world we currently live in, technology is frequently used as the instrument of states to achieve their aims. This has, naturally, had a way of complicating things, and has done so since the invention of the musket, the rifle, the steam engine and the powered aircraft. The advent of unmanned, “over-the horizon” or information-based technology has, true to form, complicated things further.

Technology, alone, is not the originator of many geopolitical problems in and of itself, nor is it a silver bullet to end them. Tensions between nations and states have existed for millennia. They are woven into the structures of states and societies that humans have created, and technological advance merely adds a layer of friction. The South China Sea offers a useful case in point.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has claimed an ‘indisputable right‘ to the South China Sea since its foundation in 1949, as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) promise to restore China’s pre-Opium War standing in the region and the world, on which a significant amount of its government’s legitimacy rests. But the advancement of its indigenous engineering and military technology sectors has gifted the PRC a greatly expanded set of options with which to assert its claims.

Unmanned technology is a particularly good example of this. The burgeoning civilian oceanographic research sector in the PRC has meant many more Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) being deployed into the South China Sea, for nominally (and most probably genuine) research purposes. But, as a commentary by H.I. Sutton recently pointed out, oceanographic data can be as readily used for submarine warfare as it can be for environmental monitoring, whether the equipment is painted a civilian yellow or military grey.

‘If you know yourself and know your enemy, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ – Sun Tzu

Furthermore, the kinds of UUVs most commonly deployed by mainland China are known as ‘gliders’. These have minimal onboard propulsion, instead of using an inflatable sac to sink and rise in the water as it’s moved by the currents of the water, while it collects and transmits data back to its mothership. Subsequently, they can very easily end up in other nations’ territorial waters, let alone the disputed waters of the South China Sea, with little to no indication whether their placement was intentional or simply an accident. As such, it forms a perfect opportunity for deniable intelligence gathering. UUV’s can detect the composition of the water, which will include run-off from the land and discharge from rivers, which in turn offers clues as to the industrial activities and natural resources present in the country, while also detecting submarines and other vessels. Sutton believes that the number of gliders being picked up in Indonesian waters, and those of other nations, suggests a major attempt to gather intelligence within and outside the South China Sea. But that is a supposition based on deductions, and we have no way of definitively knowing the truth. Science and technology can be used to gain knowledge, and thereby control, an area. They can also be used to withhold information, thereby passively defending their control.

Information and control go together. Few understood this better than Sun Tzu, a Chinese strategic thinker, who is supposed to have said that [i]f you know yourself and know your enemy, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ The PRC would seem to have embraced this line of thinking. In 2004, the PRC announced that it was altering its military strategy to what it called warfare under ‘conditions of informationization’ (i.e. technological advance, meaning combatants have greater knowledge of the battlefield), a position which it altered again in 2015 to one of winning informationized local wars’. This latest strategy had three elements:

  • information dominance,
  • precision strikes on strategic points,
  • and joint operations to gain victory.

It’s this first point that has concerned strategists in the United States. Writing for the national security blog War on the Rocks, former US Navy intelligence officer Michael Dahm expressed his concern that US forces, usually able to dominate a conventional war, would be left blind and vulnerable to an adversary with a greatly superior awareness of the battlefield, as a result of the volume of surveillance, electronic warfare and communication equipment present on the islands the PRC has built in the South China Sea.

The relative accuracy of Dahm’s argument is disputed. But his point, that the PRC’s ability to gather information and conduct surveillance in the South China Sea has helped it assert its claim to the area, is relevant. Technological advance has aided it in this.

So, what next? Well, technologies will continue to develop and advance. The opportunities they offer will continue to be exploited by states, to fulfil their purposes. And from there? Who knows, but we can expect the range of motion afforded to governments to increase, for better or worse.


Political Editor for the Wessex Scene 2020-2021. Interested in politics, foreign affairs, and just about anything within those to be honest.

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