Why Are Chinese Drones Clogging Oceans?

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Representative image: A US Naval drone BQM-74E launches from the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen in the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Cryptologic Technician 1st Class Carl T. Jacobson). A similar American naval drone was seized by the Chinese in 2016.

New Delhi: With China’s burgeoning ambition to insert a finger into the tiniest of geopolitical crevices, one can never be sure what will be found washed-up in one’s backyard with the ominous ‘Made in China’ tag.

Last month, an Indonesian fisherman mistakenly netted an innocuous object off Masalembu.

The object later turned out to be an ‘Underwater Glider’ of Chinese origin. Not surprisingly, a recent RUSI, think tank on international defence and security, report indicates that this is only one of the many such instances wherein such Chinese Uncrewed (or Unmanned) Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), also called Gliders, have been ‘discovered’ in different parts of the world’s oceans.

In the recent past, there have been at least four other instances where Chinese Underwater Vehicles were found; in December 2020 near Selayar Island Indonesia; February and March 2019 at Bangka and off Riau Islands, Indonesia; and in November 2016 at Quang Ngai, Vietnam.

Further, a December 2020 report indicates China had deployed twelve such Gliders in the
Indian Ocean from their specialist survey ship Xiangyanghong 06. These were recovered by the same ship in February 2020 after recording around 3,400 observations.

Sea Wing family of drones
Interestingly, this recently recovered Glider in Indonesia, like the other four, belong to Sea Wing ‘Haiyi’ family developed by Shenyang Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences. It has an uncanny design resemblance with the Littoral Battlespace Sensing- Glider (LBSG) used by US Navy. Given that LBS-G of USS Bowditch was picked up by a Chinese Communist Party Navy (CCP-N) ship in 2016, one wonders whether the resemblance is a mere coincidence!

In this regard, it would be telling that in February 2020, Christopher Wray, Director of the FBI had identified China as ‘the biggest law enforcement threat to the United States, arguing that China was seeking to �steal American technology by any means.’

Perhaps, the similarity in the design of the recovered glider can serve as an apt case study in how blatant technology theft can be fashionably positioned as ‘reverse engineering’.

While these Gliders may appear benign to a layman, in reality they are designed to gather data like temperature, salinity, current, turbidity etc below the sea surface which is crucial for Submarine operations.

Every submarine operating country maintains such databases for their area of operation which gives them vantage on both submarine as well as anti-submarine operations or threats. Gathering such data from the areas near other countries is an indication of a country’s preoccupations with undertaking submarine operations in those areas.

The deployment of such a Glider in shores far away from China that too astride important routes towards the Indian Ocean, tells us something interesting about Chinese preoccupations.

One would expect that China would have become more circumspect, if not cautious, while resorting to underhand tactics to gather data, especially after the infamous Huawei fiasco which had invited the opprobrium from many countries, or India’s banning more than 200 Chinese apps recently.

Fishing/research vessels
In addition to this, recent reports have indicated the increased and somewhat alarming presence of Chinese fishing and research vessels in the Indian Ocean Region and other distant waters.

Gathering crucial bathymetric data as a prelude to conducting submarine operations appears to be one of the most logical reasons behind these deployments. Interestingly, the present deployment pattern also covers the Northern approaches to Australia with whom China has had strained relations, over a series of defence, trade and foreign policy disputes. Add to this, a �repugnant fake tweet’ by the Chinese government showing an Australian soldier in poor light had further unravelled Sino-Aussie relations.

This, if nothing else, illustrates, albeit obliquely, the unethical, reprehensible, below-thebelt stratagems employed by the Chinese State machinery to gain any sort of vantage, over those it perceives as the opposition. Thus, Chinese espionage equipment in one’s backyard should not be surprising, and may only be the tip of the iceberg.

What is being done?
It will be significant to highlight that this recent incident is not the first. Increased activity of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Navy warships, Research Vessels as well as Chinese fishing vessels in last few years is a clear indication of CCP’s less-than-benign unscrupulous intentions in the Indian Ocean region.

However, as any responsible and stabilising force in the Indian Ocean Region would do, India has stepped up surveillance with its Naval ships, maritime reconnaissance aircraft as well as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Recent lease of two predator drones has given an edge to the Navy in keeping track of CCP and Chinese vessels operating in the region.As the Indian Navy remains poised to uphold freedom of navigation and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific, Chinese incursions in the Indian Ocean are unlikely to go unchecked, given that the CCP harbours malicious intentions against most Indian Ocean Region littorals.

Collaborative initiatives
Unlike the Chinese, whose geopolitical machinations have left a trail of debt traps and underhand methods for making inroads into smaller countries, the vision espoused by India is inclusive, and genuinely tempered to ensure greater common good in the region.

India’s response
To put things in perspective, one could surmise that India’s retort to the Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy has been ‘Security and Growth for all in the Region’ (SAGAR), realized through a multitude of collaborative initiatives with Indian Ocean Region littorals.

Given the rising presence of dubious Chinese vessels and platforms in the Indian Ocean Region with their questionable, less-than-benign objectives, there is a need for concentrated efforts and an inclusive strategy to ensure the safety and security of the great commons.

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