An unexpected Christmas catch has revealed Beijing is actively surveying critical shipping choke-points to Australia’s north.
And that could have dire implications if our trade-spat worsens.
Three undersea spy drones have been caught in Indonesian waters. They appear to be a Chinese design, and they were in shipping lanes crucial for Australia’s security.
They look like simple tubes with wings. But they’re packed full of sensors and a long-range transmitter to send their discoveries back to headquarters.
One was found in the world’s busiest shipping “highway” – the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Singapore. Now two have been found near the Sunda and Lombok Straits to Australia’s north.
All are vital – but vulnerable – gateways through which Middle Eastern oil flows to China.
And all are vital – but vulnerable – gateways through which Singaporean refined fuels flow to Australia.
These are the only deepwater channels linking the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. Which is why whoever controls these narrow waterways can bring the economies of entire nations to their knees.
Indonesian social media is awash with images of fishers, soldiers and police posing with the captured surveillance drone.
It’s the third such drone to be caught in Indonesian waters in recent years.
A fisherman found the most recent shortly before Christmas near the Selayar Islands in Indonesia’s Flores Sea.
That’s situated to the north of Western Australia. The nearby Sunda Strait is one of just two deepwater passages to the Indian Ocean. Also nearby is Lombok Strait, which links Indonesian waters to the Timor Sea and Darwin.
A fisherman, named by local media only as Saeruddin, handed the 225cm-long metallic catch over to local police, who then contacted the Indonesian navy.
Another of the Sea Wing drones was found in January 2020 near the Flores Sea’s Masalembu Islands.
The first was discovered in March 2019, this time in the Riau Islands near Singapore and Indonesia’s Surabaya Naval Base. Its batteries and sensors were still functioning at the time.
The latest catch has been taken to Indonesia’s Makassar Naval base for inspection.
International military analysts identify the underwater gliders as Chinese-built “Sea Wing” uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs).
Pictures show three camera-like protrusions in the nose of its torpedo-shaped body, with a long antenna extending from the rear.
It has no engine. But its winged glider-like design enables it to “swim” forward through the water by repeatedly diving and rising. This allows them to remain active at sea for more than a month.
China’s Academy of Sciences is proud of its design, declaring in December last year that it had released a dozen such Sea Wing drones into the Indian Ocean. These then reportedly travelled some 12,000km and dove up to 6.5km beneath the wavetops.
It conducted a similar survey in the South China Sea in 2017.
Military analysts also speculate the drones can act as submarine hunters, capable of locating, identifying, following, photographing – and targeting – underwater opponents.
The prospect of Beijing covertly surveying the underwater terrain of these choked waterways is disturbing. Not only are the drones capable of mapping every nook, cranny and wreck on the sea bottom, they also can chart changes in water temperature, salinity and current speed.
“These gliders may, in some cases, be innocent, but they are naturally viewed with suspicion. It may be evidence that China is reconnoitring potential submarine routes into the Indian Ocean, through Indonesian waters. Or some other naval plan,” writes submarine warfare analyst H.I. Sutton.
Such hydrographic data is vital for submarine warfare – both for friendly submarines to remain hidden and to help locate hostile ones. It can also identify the most effective locations to position sea mines to attack ships passing overhead.
“These routes, the Sunda Strait and Lombok Strait, may be important in wartime,” Sutton writes. “Intelligence gathered by the drone may be valuable to the Chinese Navy if their submarines intend to use these straits.”
Beijing isn’t the only naval power to use such underwater devices. A Chinese warship seized a US drone as it was being recovered by a survey ship in the South China Sea in 2016.
Beijing issued a formal protest at what it called an intrusion of its sovereign waters.
But Beijing itself has been repeatedly caught operating in foreign waters.
In September last year, the Indian navy evicted the Chinese survey ship Shhiyan-1 from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This marks the Indian Ocean entrance to the crucial Malacca Strait.
Beijing has been sending regular submarine patrols into the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal since 2012.
Institute of South Asian Studies research fellow Yogesh Joshi has warned “the Andaman Sea is slowly but surely becoming (a) most crucial battlefront.”
“China’s economy relies heavily on sea lanes of communication passing through the waterway; it, therefore, fears a situation where hostile powers could interdict these vital economic lifelines,” he wrote.
But Beijing realises control of these vital channel cuts both ways. If closed, it would have dire consequences for key regional economies including Japan, South Korea – and Australia.
And Australia has no fuel reserve stockpile.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel