BEIJING is stepping up its presence in the South China Sea with he deployment of a long-range underwater drone designed to extend range of its activities in the disputed waters.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences said the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) – dubbed Sea-Whale 2000 – has completed a non-stop 37-day sea trial covering a distance of 1,250 miles. Its mission path remains top-secret but defence analysts said the drone’s range means it could easily cover the Paracel and Spratly islands – claimed by China but also neighbouring Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines – and return to base in Sanya, Hainan.
The new generation torpedo-shaped drone is three metres long and weighs 200kg. It is fitted with futuristic artificial intelligence technology and a wide range of sensors to detect temperature, salinity, current, trace chemicals, underwater visibility and biological activity.
It can dive 2,000 metres below the surface and cruise at speeds of up to 1.2 metres per second.
Dr Huang Yan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ robotics institute said: “Sea-Whale 2000’s development is to meet the long-term deep-sea mobile survey needs in the South China Sea.
“The drone is able to run a long-endurance mission for weeks with one launch and can accomplish multiple working mode missions.”
Dr Huang declined to elaborate on why China has developed such drone technology for the South China Sea but it will come to no surprise to security experts who have monitored Beijing’s policy of rapid militarisation in the disputed territory.
China’s deployment of increasingly sophisticated naval forces has driven the US to reassess its strategy in the South Sea China Sea, sparking fears of more instability in the volatile maritime region.
In recent weeks the United States Coast Guard (USCG) has rapidly expanded its deployment to joint exercises with regional partners, aimed at deterring China’s “grey zone” provocations by using paramilitary and coast guard vessels to push its claims.
USCG commandant Admiral Karl Leo Schultz told the Asia Times: “There are ongoing discussions, ongoing planning efforts to support the US Indo-Pacific Command’s operations in the South China Sea.
“We have partnered up in training allies to enhance security in the region. We are keenly focused on those likeminded partners building a regional approach.”
The move comes in response to Beijing’s efforts to dominate adjacent waters and intimidate rival claimant states through its increasingly powerful China Coast Guard (CCG).
Washington has openly warned that China’s “grey zone” aggression – operations that do not constitute war – could fall under its mutual defence treaty obligation with its treaty ally the Philippines.
Fears of armed conflict in the region have been ever-present this year and China claims it is trying to patch up deteriorating relations in the region by agreeing a code of conduct with its neighbours.
But a top US diplomat expressed scepticism about Beijing’s sincerity.
David Stilwell said China’s ruling Communist Party is pursuing a “repressive alternative vision” for the region that seeks to reorder it in its favour and has put Beijing “in a position of strategic competition with all who seek to preserve a free and open order of sovereign nations within a rules-based order”.
Mr Stilwell said a code of conduct would be harmful to the region and freedom of the seas “if China uses it to legitimise its egregious behaviour and unlawful maritime claims”.
It can run a long-endurance mission for weeks and accomplish multiple working mode missions