The Arctic Ocean has long been at the center of scientific, economic, and political thinking. China, too, sees itself as a “near-Arctic” state and is expanding its activities in the region. Now, Chinese press reports and a scientific study have caused a stir among security experts as it concerns the deployment of new, state-of-the-art acoustic buoys and their use.
A network of buoys equipped with multiple instruments for oceanographic surveys and with a vector hydrophone are currently being deployed in the Arctic Ocean by teams of Chinese experts. The vector hydrophone is an underwater microphone with multiple sensors for directional recording of underwater sounds from multiple directions. This was reported recently by the Chinese newspaper South China Morning Post, for example, citing information from the Chinese Polar Institute, which is responsible for the project. These microphones are intended to help study circulation conditions and directions in the Arctic Ocean and, at the same time, to study organisms such as whales, seals and fish and their migratory behavior. A quite normal scientific work.
However, the activities and the press reports of the Chinese media are being eyed more suspiciously by security experts, as an article in the Eurasian Times shows. After all, the devices, which according to official statements are actually purely scientific, could also be used for other purposes. Underwater microphones like the devices now in operation can also be used to detect and track submarines and ships, or to examine the seabed for resources. In doing so, the expert teams cite a previously published study summarizing the test results of the buoys.
“The acoustic information collected by the planned large-scale listening network could be used for a wide range of applications, including subglacial communications, navigation and positioning, target detection, and the reconstruction of marine environmental parameters,” according to the study, published in the Chinese Journal of Polar Research.
Thus, does China intend to set up a listening network for espionage rather than for research?
It is possible, since China’s interest in the Arctic region is enormous and is based on economic and strategic considerations. The new polar Silk Road to strengthen the Chinese export economy and the securing of resources such as Russian oil and natural gas are doubtless at the forefront of these considerations. Beijing has made no secret of this and supports Russia’s efforts to extract energy resources. The data collected by the buoys could also be used for this purpose and could provide China with a great advantage in the race for Arctic resources, in which numerous other states, Arctic and non-Arctic, are also participating.
However, it is not only China’s continued rise in economic strength that may result from establishing such a network that is causing concern among expert teams. The buoys may also be used for security and military purposes, further encouraging the militarization of the Arctic. Signs of this are seen in the fact that data from the buoys is delivered straight home via Chinese satellites and because the Chinese Polar Institute is run directly by the Chinese state. This is likely to be of particular concern to the U.S., which in its National Arctic Strategy publication explicitly warns against Chinese and Russian activities in the region and has begun to increase its own military presence in the Arctic, notably also by deploying its icebreaker Healy to improve AI-powered analysis tools of Arctic sea ice.
The idea of using scientific research for other purposes is nothing new. But it has also attracted numerous scientists who advocate a similar model in the Arctic as in Antarctica: the establishment of a system for peace and research in a region that is more subject to global change than any other, both climatically and politically.
Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal
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