What Is China Doing in the South China Sea? Beijing Reveals Plans for Huge Observation Network

China has announced plans to set up a submarine observation network that will explore the seabed of the disputed East and South China Sea regions, the first of its kind.

Chinese state media outlet Xinhua news reported that the project would collect data to be analyzed in Shanghai, and will be completed within five years at a total cost of more than 2.1billion yuan ($310 million).

The system will allow it to explore deep under the sea in a region where its presence has proved contentious. According to the South China Morning Post, Zhou Huaiyang, a professor at the School of Marine and Earth Science at Tongji University, said that the collected data could be used to explore natural resources and protect China’s maritime interests and national security.

News of a massive nuclear submarine unit on the Yellow Sea in April suggested a Chinese move towards more deep sea exploration. China built that facility to create more nuclear attack submarines.

It is keen to continue deep sea exploration in the disputed South China Sea, after completing a four-month drilling expedition as part of the International Ocean Discovery Program.

Beijing’s moves to claim and build islands in the South China Sea is controversial, with many countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, laying claim to parts of it. China has been accused of militarizing the sea, which is one of the world’s busiest and most lucrative shipping channels.

China’s growing militarization of the South China Sea is well documented. Most recently, satellite photographs have captured permanent structures being built on reefs and small rocky outcrops, including Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef.

China has also built its own islands in the Spratly Chain, three of which have military-grade airfields. These airstrips appeared in recent months despite Xi Jinping's 2015 pledge not to militarize the islands further.

The installation of the observation center could cause alarm among its neighbors, who are concerned about China’s expansion.

However, Christian Enemark, professor of international relations at the University of Southampton says he thinks it is credible to regard this as an investment in scientific infrastructure. “The seabed does need to be monitored, and it might be a sensible thing to instate. The situation could also be read as China expressing that the South China Sa is in China’s backyard, and that they’re the ones taking responsibility for this part of the world, but I don’t think we need to read anything suspicious into this announcement,” he tells Newsweek.

The new submarine observation network will, according to Xinhua, emphasize observation of the environment and marine disasters.