Chinese Scientists Want to Conduct Research in U.S. Waters—Should Washington Let Them?


Chinese Scientists Want to Conduct Research in U.S. Waters—Should Washington Let Them?

In recent years, Chinese scientists—and the government agencies that back them—have fixed their gaze on American waters, especially those near the U.S. territory of Guam. This has raised questions about the ability of current policy to adequately protect U.S. interests.


Civilian oceanographers help make the ocean “transparent” for the Chinese navy in several ways. First, they share data. This was the case during an August 2017 cruise by the Chinese ship Kexue, in waters near Guam. Interviewed by a Hong Kong-based newspaper, embarked scientist Xu Kuidong (徐奎东) admitted that he and his colleagues had made several “exciting discoveries” that would be shared with the Chinese military. Indeed, a key purpose of the ship’s operations was to collect oceanographic information to help the PLAN effectively operate beyond the Second Island Chain, the strategically important archipelago extending from Japan to Indonesia via the Bonin Islands, Mariana Islands, Yap and Palau.

In other cases, Chinese civilian scientists help create new knowledge valuable to the Chinese military. For example, the Qingdao National Lab is leading a hugely ambitious project to build a network of fixed sensors extending from the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean. This initiative, called the “Transparent Ocean Project,” seeks to collect real-time or near-real-time data on ocean currents, temperature, salinity and other parameters. This data will be used to develop models for predicting oceanic conditions that impact naval operations. The lab’s director, Wu Lixin (吴立新), routinely touts the value of this project for Chinese national defense. Indeed, the lab has assigned a senior Chinese oceanographer named Hu Dunxin (胡敦欣) to oversee the project’s military side. When asked by a Chinese reporter about how he defined “transparent,” Hu described it as the ability to observe the ocean and “clearly see everything inside.” If successful, this project could imperil U.S. submarine operations in strategically important ocean areas.


Civilian oceanographers also work on joint projects with the Chinese navy. In January 2009, the State Oceanic Administration signed a cooperative agreement with the PLAN, which was just beginning to expand operations in the Philippine Sea and Indian Ocean. Since then, State Oceanic Administration scientists and engineers have been tasked with helping the navy prepare for the new operating environments, including through joint research projects. Other institutions, such as the Qingdao National Lab, also work closely with the military. Together with the PLAN Submarine Academy, it operates the Joint Laboratory for Maritime Civil-Military Integration, which focuses on projects to bolster PLAN mastery of the undersea environment. Relationships of this kind are a major priority for Xi Jinping. Indeed, on a June 2018 visit to the Qingdao National Lab, Xi emphasized the importance of civil-military integration and the role of marine science in national defense.

UNCLOS defines MSR as research conducted to “increase scientific knowledge of the marine environment for the benefit of all mankind.” China’s distant-ocean research clearly does not meet this standard. Indeed, some significant share of these activities may be more aptly classified as military surveys, i.e., the “collection of marine data for military purposes.” This fact has major implications for U.S. policy.

The Costs of Weak MSR Policy

Current U.S. policy governing foreign MSR traces its roots to the Reagan era. In a March 1983 statement, President Ronald Reagan waived America’s coastal state rights to exercise jurisdiction over foreign research activities within the U.S. exclusive economic zone. For his rationale, the president cited a desire to promote marine scientific research and avoid “unnecessary burdens.” Today, the United States only requires foreign scientists to apply for permission through the U.S. State Department in a limited number of circumstance, such as if the research will be conducted within a national marine sanctuary or involves the study of marine mammals or endangered species.

This liberal policy applies to Chinese MSR. Indeed, the policy allows Chinese scientists to access the most sensitive of locations without oversight. For example, taking advantage of the open U.S. government policy, in June 2018 the Kexue freely operated in the U.S. exclusive economic zone west of the Mariana Islands. As required by international convention, the Kexue transmitted signals indicating its identity, location, course and speed. Commercially-available data show the ship approached as close as twenty-five nautical miles to the U.S. territory of Guam, home to two large military bases, including Naval Base Guam, which was just then hosting warships from India and Japan as part of the Malabar Exercise.

The Kexue had a plausible scientific purpose for being there: these waters contain several active submarine volcanoes. Reports from the Chinese press claim that the ship’s embarked scientists sought nothing more than to film and sample hydrothermal vents on the seafloor. Yet, seen in the context of China’s overall approach to marine science, this story seems far from complete.

In principle, it would not matter if Chinese oceanographic research vessels like the Kexue were conducting military surveys in the U.S. exclusive economic zone. International law allows it, and maritime freedom is a core U.S. interest. Indeed, U.S. policy has long distinguished between MSR, which a coastal state has the authority to regulate in its exclusive economic zone, and military surveys, which remain an international freedom. The fundamental problem is that China makes no distinction between the two. On this basis, it interferes with U.S. military surveys in the waters off its coasts. Accordingly, in combination, U.S. and Chinese policies are harming American interests. Beijing is able to reserve the right to oppose—and sometimes physically obstruct—U.S. Navy ocean surveillance and hydrographic survey activities, which it has repeatedly done in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea, while performing the same operations in American waters under the guise of scientific research. This allows China to continue to pressure American military surveys while concealing its own intentions.

The PRC has a long history of disguising military activities in civilian garb, especially in the maritime realm. The first time PLAN sailors traversed the First Island Chain was not aboard a warship, but a white-hulled State Oceanic Administration research vessel. In March 1976, China sent Xiang Yang Hong 05 and Xiang Yang Hong 11 on a highly-classified expedition to the South Pacific to survey sites for an intercontinental ballistic missile testing range. PLAN officers wore “Mao suits” and pretended to be civilian scientists, their photos shown in the Chinese press to sustain this fiction. Writing in a late 2016 issue of a State Oceanic Administration periodical, a group of Chinese researchers, four of whom work for the State Oceanic Administration’s First Institute of Oceanography, highlighted the value of using Chinese civilians to collect environmental data in the Atlantic Ocean. Sending warships to conduct surveys, they explain, might increase the risk of hostile reactions from other states. “Scientific investigation, on the other hand, is ocean exploration for the public good. Therefore, it seldom attracts attention.”

Reclaiming America's Coastal State Rights

Washington clearly needs to update its MSR policy to better cope with the China challenge. It should focus on two key aims. First, it should strive to better understand which Chinese operations are for scientific advancement and which are military surveys. Our research shows that the PRC has mobilized Chinese oceanographers to directly support the country’s transformation into a premier naval power. But what precisely are they doing to serve this aim? A solid understanding of the scale and content of these activities in U.S. waters is vital for accurate threat assessments. By requiring permission for states to conduct MSR in American waters, U.S. authorities would be better able to identify those Chinese vessels that are operating in U.S. waters to achieve a purely military objective. Second, the United States should insist on reciprocity. Simply put, U.S. ships conducting military surveys in Chinese waters should be accorded the same respectful treatment that Chinese vessels have always received in U.S. waters. Thus, this shift in policy would advance two important objectives—it would impose more clarity about the nature of Chinese operations in American waters and it would establish a stronger basis for reciprocal respect for American military surveys in Chinese waters.

Asserting U.S. coastal state rights can go a long way to achieving both of these aims. The United States should begin by asserting its prerogatives to approve all Chinese MSR activities in U.S. waters. At the very least, their MSR applications will reveal what Chinese oceanographers claim they intend to do in America’s exclusive economic zone. This information can be checked against other sources, such as reconnaissance flights by U.S. Navy patrol aircraft. If a Chinese vessel is found operating in U.S. waters without consent, the United States can assume the vessel is undertaking a lawful military survey. A policy shift will not stop such Chinese operations. But it will give the U.S. leverage to require reciprocal treatment for U.S. vessels in Chinese waters.

UNCLOS also gives coastal states the right to insist on participating in all foreign MSR projects in their exclusive economic zones. The United States could require Chinese research ships to embark American observers, perhaps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the U.S. Coast Guard. UNCLOS further stipulates that coastal states can request records of all data collected—another opportunity that the United States should not pass up. By asserting these rights, the United States can gain a much more complete understanding of PRC oceanographic research activities.