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High-tech Chinese ships are mapping waters close to Papua New Guinea just as the United States and Australia begin upgrading a naval base on Manus Island.
The deep-water Chinese scientific surveys are part of Beijing’s unprecedented oceanographic research of the Western Pacific, in an area experts believe could be crucial in any future maritime conflict with the US.
Military analysis of GPS satellite data reveals two Chinese research vessels entered PNG’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) north of Manus Island, just weeks after US Vice President Mike Pence announced a joint redevelopment of the ageing Lombrum naval base.
The ships involved, the Ke Xue and Hai Ce 3301, are part of a two-dozen strong Chinese “Distant-Ocean Research fleet” that has conducted expansive maritime surveys around the Philippines, Palau, Guam and Japan over the past two years.
According to a December 23 report seen by the ABC, the “even spacing between legs in Papua New Guinea’s EEZ indicates bathymetric data collection” taking place.
Senior Australian and American military officials acknowledge the oceanographic surveys are entirely lawful, but believe the civilian ships are also gathering invaluable data for future defence operations.
“The information gained for resource purposes has dual use for military purposes,” one long-serving Australian defence official has told the ABC, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“Establishing the baseline data around what the seabed is made out of, what the seabed terrain is like, the salinity and what thermal layers exist in the water is useful for mining but it also helps determine the acoustic conditions for submarine operations.
“You can hide under thermal layers and you are harder to locate amongst the clutter of rocky jagged sea beds — throw in measurements of ambient noise levels of the ocean from, of all things, snapping shrimp in tropical waters, and you start to build a really useful set of mission planning data.”
Officially the Australian Defence Department is saying little about the Chinese oceanographic activity, except to note that “our region hosts a high volume of maritime traffic, including military and other state vessels, from a range of nations.
“International law permits the conduct of marine scientific research in international waters, within certain parameters, provided that activities do not infringe on the rights of other states or unjustifiably interfere with other legitimate uses of the sea,” a department spokesperson told the ABC.
Beijing insists missions are scientific and entirely lawful.
China’s military has received a lot of attention in recent years for its activities in the South China Sea and beyond the “First Island Chain”, which stretches from Taiwan down to Malaysia and Vietnam.
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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