The Next South China Sea Flashpoint: Unmanned Systems


The seizure of a U.S. Navy unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) earlier this month was certainly unprecedented and may augur future frictions. Although the PLAN has since returned the UUV, this incident remains subject to debate. Beyond the legal implications of such a blatant violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Beijing’s attempted signaling in this case has included a continuation of prior attempts to impose limitations upon U.S. surveillance activities in the vicinity of China. A Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesperson took advantage of the incident to call for the U.S. to cease reconnaissance activities in the maritime space adjacent to China (中国当面海域), despite the fact that UNCLOS permits it, warning that China would remain “vigilant” and take the “necessary measures” to deal with such activities.

In addition to clumsy attempts to justify the seizure of the UUV, Chinese media accounts of the incident have noted not only the perceived potential that U.S. UUVs could collect intelligence on the movements of Chinese submarines, but also that this supposedly more advanced UUV could provide “valuable information.” While it is difficult to test the veracity of either of those assertions, the PLAN’s actions reflect its intensified focus on the potential utility of UUVs. Looking forward, the utilization of unmanned systems in such contested waters could become a prominent aspect of the East and South China Sea disputes and a frequent flashpoint.

This particular incident is consistent with a trend toward the increased employment of unmanned systems in the East and South China Seas by the U.S. and Chinese militaries alike. The U.S. military has routinely used UUVs such as the one recently seized, typically to collect relatively innocuous oceanographic data. As tensions in the South China Sea have intensified, the United States has increased the frequency of its reconnaissance flights with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the Global Hawk, over the South China Sea. Reportedly, there have been several incidents in which the PLA sought to engage in electronic interference against the Global Hawk.

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Meanwhile, the PLA has focused on expanding its utilization of unmanned systems, which, in peacetime, can be used not only for reconnaissance but also to establish a persistent presence in disputed waters. The PLA has integrated UAVs throughout its force structure; deployed a small number of UUVs; and progressed in its development of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). In particular, the PLA Navy’s East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet are known to possess multiple units with UAVs, including the BZK-005, a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) system, which has seemingly engaged in patrols in the East and South China Seas on multiple occasions. Recently, there have also been significant advances in China’s development of advanced UAVs, including those with stealth capabilities and designed for swarming, introduced during the Zhuhai airshow this November.

On several prior occasions, China has employed UAVs in the East and South China Seas to reinforce its claims, often provoking frictions. According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, in September 2013, Japanese fighter jets scrambled to intercept a UAV of “unidentified nationality,” seemingly the BZK-005, after it entered Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. In May 2016, there were reports that China had deployed a BZK-005 UAV to Woody Island, based on satellite imagery. At the time, in response to criticisms of this further militarization, prominent PLA commentator Admiral Yin Zhuo characterized the measure as a “very normal” effort to manage the South China Sea, which was within China’s “search and rescue area of responsibility.” Often, China’s employment of UAVs tends to be undertaken by maritime law enforcement agencies rather than the PLA. For instance, there have been reports that the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), which oversees the Chinese Coast Guard, has been constructing multiple UAV bases along China’s coastline and is involved in efforts to develop unmanned vessels for surveying purposes. Consequently, the SOA’s use of unmanned systems in the East and South China Seas may tend to be justified as routine and related to maritime security issues, even when the intended effect is to establish a persistent presence above these contested waters.

Although the current employment of UUVs has only occurred on a limited basis in this context, the U.S. and Chinese militaries have both prioritized advances in UUVs. Although the UUV that was the focus of this particular incident reportedly was relatively unsophisticated, used to collect routine oceanographic data, the U.S. military is starting to engage in substantial investments in more advanced UUVs, which are seen as a potential force multiplier, a trend that has been highlighted in official Chinese media and closely tracked by PLA analysts. In the near future, UUVs could have utility in undersea warfare, alternatively reinforcing a traditional U.S. advantage or enabling China to compensate for a traditional weakness. The PLAN may also employ UUVs for tasks such as reconnaissance, tracking, surveillance, communications relay, warning guidance, target designation, mine detection and hunting, and anti-ship operations. Although at this point, the PLAN primarily uses a fairly basic UUV, known as the Zhishui, China has prioritized the development of more sophisticated UUVs, in the context of broader advances in its military robotics industry. There are multiple research institutes engaged in efforts to advance China’s UUVs, including the Autonomous Underwater Robotics Technology Laboratory based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Automation.

In some cases, China’s efforts may be accelerated by intellectual property theft, of which the recent seizure of a U.S. UUV could have been a particularly blatant attempt. In April 2016, the Department of Justice charged a woman with smuggling UUV parts from U.S. companies to the Harbin Engineering University, a state-owned university that is prominently engaged in research on underwater drones. The temporary seizure of a U.S. UUV, even a comparatively unsophisticated ocean glider, could potentially have provided at least limited insight into U.S. design of these systems. Notably, this may not be the first time that China has captured a U.S. UUV, given that Chinese fishermen reportedly netted a foreign UUV that was engaged in reconnaissance and intelligence collection in the South China Sea during the summer of 2015. Although it is difficult to estimate the potential contributions of illicit technology transfer, China is evidently aggressively seeking to advance the sophistication of its UUVs.

The controversy provoked by the PLAN’s seizure of a U.S. UUV has highlighted a dimension of the ongoing frictions in the East and South China Sea disputes that could become increasingly contentious. In the near future, the PLA is likely to utilize a range of unmanned systems more extensively to assert its expansive claims in the East and South China Seas, while seeking to prevent and counter their employment by the U.S. and rival claimants. For instance, publications by PLA scholars have also assessed the advantages of using USVs as an “innovative means” of protecting China’s “rights and interests” in the South China Sea. The employment of UAVs for patrols of China’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and perhaps a future South China Sea ADIZ may be seen as less escalatory than patrols by military aircraft.

The PLA’s advancing capabilities with unmanned systems thus offer another option for ‘salami-slicing’ activities that maintain below a threshold likely to provoke a response, such as the tendency to use CCG vessels or maritime militias, rather than the PLAN, in low-level confrontations at sea. Eventually, the presence of Chinese UAVs, and perhaps eventually USVs, in the East and South China Seas could become persistent, enhancing the PLA’s capabilities in peacetime and wartime contingencies alike. The capability of unmanned systems to establish a persistent presence, without human limitations or risk to human life, could enable China to continue to create new ‘facts on the water,’ reinforcing its claims and capability to control these contested waters.

Elsa Kania is currently an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group. She is a graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa). Elsa was a Boren Scholar in Beijing, China, and she is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Her prior professional experience includes working at the Department of Defense, FireEye, Inc., and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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