Somewhere, under the sea: maritime claims and territorial disputes in the South China Sea

By: Cheng Lai Ki

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Source: CNET

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea involve the maritime claims between several sovereign states within the region.  The tension fundamentally involves Brunei-Darussalam, the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. Stepping into the 20th century, the world experienced the Chinese economic boom, leading to multiple actions gearing up current tensions in the region – such as the construction of artificial islands through landfilling existing reefs atolls in the area.[1] These strategies of maritime dominance within the region have drawn in the attention of the United States (US) and their determination to uphold the Freedom of Navigation (FoN). On October 27th 2015, the US deployed a naval destroyer (USS Lassen) to navigate within 12 nautical miles of emerging artificial landmasses within the Spratly Islands region, as part of their FoN Operations.[2] Since then we have seen the general tone within the region to be military centric, with the deployment of naval vessels, surveillance aircraft and the hosting of joint exercises. Most of the focus has thus been centralised on the ocean surface but what about sub-surface?

On November 26, 2015, Chinese President Xi – also acting as the chair of the Central Military Commission – announced plans for a complete reform of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  The fundamental concept behind this reform is to streamline its command infrastructure and capabilities. Its main objective is arguably progressive towards empowering its offensive capabilities, exhibited through previous announced personnel cuts ‘by 300,000 troops, mostly focusing on administrative personnel’[3] Contrasting to its naval domain, where there are signs of expansion rather than constriction. An early checkpoint within its naval expansion is the inheritance of a former Soviet carrier from Ukraine that required sixteen years to obtain and rebuild – later commissioned in 2012 under the NATO designation Liaoning. According to satellite images obtained from IHS Jane’s (a database and analytics organisation on military, aerospace and transportation topics)  in October, the People’s Liberation Navy (PLN) is currently in the ‘advanced stage of construction’ of an unidentified hull of what could be China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier at Dalian Shipyard.[4] The PLN expansion of its naval capabilities can also be confirmed in an apparent Taiwan defence ministry report about the PLN’s plan to construct two more Aircraft Carriers of similar tonnage as the Liaoning – approximately 60,000 tonnes.[5] Focusing on the military value of the construction of islands with landing strips and indigenous aircraft carriers, the argument can be made that these developments significantly increase the forward deployment capabilities and combat range of the Chinese military and intelligence. However, for an effective and updated military, a strong stable economy for either the purchase or production of new arms is essential. Before diving deeper into the region, we need to understand the maritime dimensions of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ expansion project and its potential military linages.[6]

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Fig1. China’s Inland and Maritime Silk Roads (Forbes, 2015)

Since the 1990s, China has slowly gained momentum in the international theatre within domains of economic growth, military capabilities and intelligence development. One of its most significant developments was the announcement of its diplomatic and engineering expansion along its ancestral silk-road, under the project title ‘One Belt, One Road’.[7] Despite it being an essentially economical expansion strategy, there has been some debate regarding the military considerations behind its development. Turning towards its maritime component, the debate regarding the military aspirations behind this manoeuvre is not new and has been in fact a hot topic between sinologists and pundits.[8] In 2015, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the United States Pacific Command ‘says the vastly expanded reefs now look exactly like combat bases for fighters, bombers, ships, and surveillance’.[9] Affirmation the Admiral’s statement, and analysing the port locations along the maritime silk road, the locations are highly strategic in ensuring maritime dominance of the southern seaboard of the Indian Ocean alongside the South China Sea (See Fig1)[10] First, the recent establishment of a PLA offshore military base in Djibouti, located in the horn of Africa, North-North East of Nairobi – next to a strategic naval choke point between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden – adds fuel to the already existing debate about the military aspiration behind China’s expansion into South Africa. Taking into consideration of an additional port in Nairobi, maritime silk road calling points in Africa facilitates potential naval oversight over the Arabian Sea. Shifting focus towards Central and the South East Asian region, the locations of Colombo (Sri Lanka), Kolkata (India), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Jakarta (Indonesia) creates a proverbial wall of strategic naval points for control over the Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea and the Java Sea – essentially most of the Indian Ocean north of the equator. Therefore, the maritime silk road significantly maximises potential PLN forward deployment capabilities and strategies.

Although the maritime dimensions of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ expansion project raises concern and debate about its strategic naval contributions to the PLN, it remains nonetheless a high risk and volatile direction that does not fit with current strategies displayed by China – which are arguably more about gaining diplomatic power through economical dominance. Despite a slowing of China’s economic growth for the first time in 2015 as its ‘growth rate falls below for 7% for [the] first time since 2009’, this does not necessarily indicate an inhibition of the Chinese utilising more offensive strategies in other domains of warfare.[11] In 2013, Mandiant, a private cyber security firm released a 74 page report, accounting for the existence of a Chinese funded cyber espionage unit referred to as PLA Unit 61398 under their 3rd Department of the PLA General Staff (3PLA) in charge of signals intelligence and operations.[12] Pages 17 – 18 of the report provided a procurement document for large quantities of fibre optic cables for a building within an industrial district located in Gaoqiao, Shanghai. The exposure of Unit 61398 highlights a progression of PLA strategies towards the cyber domain and highlights a potential ‘submarine’ dimension of analysing the maritime silk road.

The world’s ‘Achilles Heel’ beneath sea

 The modern world is more interconnected than ever, with personal, governmental and defence devices commonly communicating over a singular platform – the internet. However, what enables the proper function of the internet is not located in our stratosphere or at low earth orbit but deep under our oceans in the form of Submarine Telecommunications Cables (STCs). Even with the development of satellite relays, a hard line connection still remains the quickest and most efficient method for the data transmission.[13] This raises a question of how are these cables, beneath China’s maritime silk road, a strategic intelligence asset for Chinese military?

The internet was originally a military project designed to secure internal transmission of information via a method known as packet switching. Its role as a tool to achieve information transmission by defence and intelligence agencies continues to the present day. Since its initial 1854 installation of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, utilisation of STCs to support international communications has technologically evolved – visible from the development of fibre optic cables and cryptographic techniques. Within civilian domains, these cables are the hard-line connections for almost all internet reliant material. Starting from its academic use for the transmissions of emails to its current use within social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Weibo). This makes STCs a highly invaluable source of intelligence in addition to it being a literal connection between nations. Especially when the intelligence infrastructure, strategy and culture differs from most Western nations. Most notably its ability for internal security monitoring for the protection of all activity that might be harmful to the party.[14] Therefore, STCs might constitute an Achilles Heel of national security, intelligence and function for any nation connected.

As some STCs are responsible for all internet transmissions leading some to believe their intelligence value residing in a ‘Cold War-esque’ interception (tapping) of internet communications from these cables, an intelligence concept still prevalent today.[15] Present study however directs to, despite utilising network balkanisation for security purposes, the notion that the internet remains a valuable resource for intelligence collection and analysis purposes.[16] According to leaked documents from the ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the United Kingdom has already conducted similar SIGINT interceptions through the ‘Optic Nerve’ program conducted by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – a British intelligence agency focusing on signals intelligence.[17] However, as indicated by Thomas Rid, ‘bulk interception…[w]hat some misleadingly call “mass surveillance,” may not nearly be as useful (or as scary) as both proponents and critics think’.[18] Should internet transmission be successfully intercepted, the data itself might be protected by powerful encryptions, depending on its strategic value or level of classification under information protection procedures. These would often be both difficult and time consuming to break thus rendering the process counter-productive and degrading its intelligence value over time.

However, its strategic value resides not in what can be extracted from STCs but what can ‘injected’. One way of doing it would be by injecting malicious codes to follow on cyber espionage operations as previously exhibited by the APT1 report. With the STCs being a hard line access to the internet or other forms of national and international telecommunications, it becomes an effective point of insertion and payload delivery method for malicious codes – especially when you want to target multiple nations. Although it cannot be necessarily said about all governmental departments, most private telecommunications companies possess highly effective firewalls alongside other cybersecurity infrastructures. These securitisation procedures might limit the effects or impacts of such cyber exploitations. However, some countries might not possess cyber defence in depth capabilities and are at greater risk of being exploited via internet connections within its national security or defence infrastructure.

Regarding its strategic military value, STC locations are similar to China’s maritime silk road. Using open source information about Submarine Cable Maps obtained from TeleGeography, multiple STCs within the South China Sea region passes through the Singapore before heading out towards the Western seaboard (See Fig2).[19] Comparing it with the previous map of China’s maritime silk road (See Fig1), a similar pattern emerges. Preliminary analysis of the two maps, revealed a degree of similarity between the maritime silk road and the location of STCs within the region. It is evident from the TeleGeogaphy map that there are multiple STC congregation nodes in multiple locations within the PRC maritime silk road. Given the economic focus of the silk road strategy, the selected locations make perfect industrial and expansionary sense. However, if military and intelligence values were added to the consideration, the degree of coincidence between the two maps potentially raises some maritime security concerns about previously indicated military intentions.[20] Therefore, the strategic military values of STCs within the South China Sea region are its location in relation to the maritime silk road and the determination of the PRC to control the region where multiple STCs connect most of South East Asia to its Eastern and Western allies. Could the maritime silk road therefore really possess military intentions through expanding forward deployment capabilities and intelligence aspirations through targeting STCs?

Forget the rise of cyber warfare, to really disrupt the defence capabilities via crippling the internet, ‘you need scuba gear and a pair of wire cutters’.[21] Although this statement by Brown might hold some truth, it fails to consider other methods of information transmissions (satellite) utilised by defence agencies or via an intranet (internal network) a method of network balkanisation on a smaller scale. Therefore, impacts on military communications might not necessarily be as detrimental as Brown would have suggested. However, what it does allude to are the potential threats on economical and civilian infrastructures. For example, global stock exchanges rely heavily on the internet for the relay of economical and financial information. A short study by Nicholas Econodamies identifies the critical role of the internet in modern financial markets. Based on this premises, a temporary distributed denial of service attack (DDoS), caused by any malicious actions on the STCs could be highly detrimental or disruptive.[22] Regardless, there is no doubt that states recognise the strategic importance of STCs. For example, Brazil has begun the construction of its own submarine cable amidst the 2013 Snowden Leaks, specifically designed to bypass the US completely.

Fig2. Submarine Telecommunication Cables Map, (TeleGeography, 2015)

Somewhere, under the sea

Within the current dynamic of tensions in the South China Sea, most media focus has been on the occurrences on the surface. The deployment of warships, conduct of multilateral exercises and the construction of artificial islands. China is expanding, economically and militarily. President Xi’s Chinese dream to reinvent China into a world superpower is gradually realised. The region has been closely observed by academics, governments and security agencies but seemingly focusing on predicting the next big naval or military manoeuvre. Although the current tension in the region is ramping up, its only a small piece in the transformative Chinese dream. The hopes of this study is to illuminate new dimensions and literal depths for future studies and explorations into military and intelligence considerations of China’s current trend of maritime, intelligence and defence developments.


Formerly an Officer in the Singapore Armed Forces, Cheng holds a Bachelor’s Honors degree in Criminology. He is currently undertaking his MA in Intelligence and International Security at King’s where his academic interests revolve around private military and security companies and their roles as security by proxy in the contemporary security theatre, and more broadly in international security and intelligence sectors. Cheng is currently a Series Editor with Strife.




[1] Schumann, M.  ‘China’s New Silk Road Dream’, Bloomberg Business, November 25, 2015.

[2] Kleven, A. ‘Is China’s Martime Silk Road a Military Strategy?’, The Diplomat, December 08, 2015.

[3] Baron, K. ‘China’s New Islands Are Clearly Military, U.S. Pacific Chief Says’, Defense One, July 24 2015.

[4] Lehmann, J.P., ‘The New Silk Road: A Visionary Dream For The 21st Century’, Forbes, May 27, 2015.

[5] Magnier, M., ‘China Economic Growth Falls Below 7% for First Time Since 2009’, The Wall Street Journal, October  18, 2015.

[6] APT-1: Exposing One of China’s Cyber Espionage Units, Mandiant, 2013, Accessed December 21, 2015.

[7] Brown, D.W., ’10 Facts About the Internet’s Undersea Cables’, Mental_Floss, December 11, 2015.

[8] Mattis, P. ‘The Analytic Challenge of Understanding Chinese Intelligence Services’ Studies in Intelligence, 56:3, 2012, pp.51.

[9] MacAskill, E., Borger, J., Hopkins, N., Davies, N. & Ball, J., ‘GCHQ taps fibre-optics cables for secret access to world’s communications’, theGuardian, June 21, 2013.

[10] Pallaris, C. ‘Open Source Intelligence: A Strategic Enabler of National Security’, CSS Analyses in Security Policy, April 2008, 3(32).

[11] Ackerman, S. & Ball, J., ‘Optic Nerve: millions of Yahoo webcam images intercepted by GCHQ’, The Guardian, February 28 2014.

[12] Rid, T., ‘Mass surveillance can’t catch terrorists. That’s the uncomfortable truth’, The Telegraph, November 16, 2015.

[13] TeleGeography: Submarine Cable Map, PriMetrica, Inc. Available from:, 2015.

[14] Klevan, 2015.

[15] Brown, 2015.

[16] Economides, N. ‘The impact of the internet on financial markets’, Journal of Financial Transformation, 1:8, (2001).

[17] Watkins, D. ‘What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea’, The New York Times, October 27, 2012.

[18] Panda, A. ‘After Months of Waiting, US Finally Begins Freedom of Navigation Patrols Near China’s Man-Made Islands’, The Diplomat, October 27, 2012.

[19] Tiezzi, S. ‘China’s Plan for a New, Improved Military’, The Diplomat, December 01, 2015.

[20] O’Connor, S. ‘Sea Platforms: China may be building first indigenous carrier’, IHS Jane’s 360, September 27, 2015.

[21] Wu, J.R., ‘China building two new aircraft carriers: Taiwanese Defense Ministry Report’, REUTERS, September 3, 2015.

[22] Tiezzi, S. ‘China’s ‘New Silk Road’ Vision Revealed’, The Diplomat, May 09, 2014.



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