China’s Use of U.S. Satellite Communications Technology in the South China Sea

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 3

Image: Cover page of the contract that the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement Zhidui and Sansha Highlander signed in August 2017 (Image Source: Author’s records).

Introduction

In recent years, the maritime law enforcement (MLE) forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have dominated the contested waters of the South China Sea (AMTI, December 4, 2020). While the exponential growth and increasing assertiveness of the China Coast Guard (CCG) have captured headlines, the evolving role of technology in China’s MLE operations has received less attention. New communications infrastructure and monitoring systems, for example, help Chinese MLE forces monitor and control contested maritime space in the South China Sea (CMSI, January 2021). These investments align with China’s broader pursuit of information superiority in the South China Sea, which involves building up electronic intelligence, counter-stealth radar, and other capabilities (JHU APL, July 2020).

Publicly available documents suggest that at least some of China’s MLE forces are using U.S. technology to bolster their communications capabilities in the South China Sea.[1] For example, in August 2017, Sansha Highlander Ocean Information Science and Technology Co., Ltd. (三沙海兰信海洋信息科技有限公司, sansha hailanxin haiyang xinxi keji youxian gongsi) signed a “law enforcement ship satellite communication systems maintenance” contract with the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement Zhidui (三沙市综合执法支队, sansha shi zonghe zhifa zhidui), a MLE force also known as “Sansha Comprehensive Law Enforcement” (SCLE).[2] This article takes a close look at the SCLE’s recent procurement history to reveal how Sansha City’s MLE forces are using U.S. technology to advance China’s interests in the South China Sea. 

Sansha City, the SCLE, and Sansha Highlander

Sansha City is headquartered on Woody Island and is responsible for administering the bulk of China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. Its jurisdiction includes the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, so-called Zhongsha Islands (中沙群岛, zhongsha qundao) and their surrounding waters.[3] The Ministry of Civil Affairs announced the State Council’s decision to establish Sansha in June 2012, and the city was formally established a month later (gov.cn, June 21, 2012, July 24, 2012). Since 2012, China has continuously developed the city’s defense capabilities, party-state institutions, economy, physical infrastructure, transportation and communications. Municipal leaders have also promoted military-civil fusion (军民融合, junmin ronghe) to synthesize People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and civilian resources (Hainan Daily, September 25, 2020; Xinhua, March 13, 2016; sansha.gov.cn, October 19, 2015). Thanks to these developments, Sansha’s leaders now have the ability to exercise normalized administrative control over contested areas of the South China Sea (CMSI, January 2021).

The SCLE is a MLE force that belongs to Sansha City.[4] It was created in late 2012 or early 2013 by combining existing maritime law enforcement forces, which reportedly included the Sansha City Fisheries Law Enforcement Zhidui (三沙市渔政支队, sansha shi yuzheng zhidui), the China Marine Surveillance Sansha Zhidui (中国海监三沙支队, zhongguo haijian sansha zhidui) and possibly other forces (sansha.gov.cn, March 31, 2020; International Herald Leader, June 1, 2015; China News, March 15, 2013). The SCLE is responsible for defending China’s maritime rights and interests,[5] managing the city’s fisheries and supporting environmental protection work (sansha.gov.cn, March 31, 2020). To defend China’s maritime rights and interests, the SCLE regularly patrols contested maritime space and harasses foreign vessels (Sina, December 8, 2015). The SCLE operates a fleet that currently includes four main ships and a number of smaller boats (gov.cn, May 21, 2015). A fifth ship is currently under construction (Eworldship, October 19, 2020).

The SCLE is part of Sansha City’s “military, law enforcement and civilian joint defense” (军警民联防, jun jing min lianfang) system (CMSI, January 2021). Through this system, the SCLE coordinates exercises, information sharing and operations with the PLA Hainan Province Sansha Garrison (中国人民解放军海南省三沙警备区, zhongguo renmin jiefangjun hainan sheng sansha jingbei qu), Sansha’s maritime militia and possibly the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet (people.com.cn, January 1, 2014; yhnews.zjol.com, July 15, 16; China National Radio, May 23, 2013; CMSI, January 2021). To facilitate this coordination, the city established a joint defense coordination center and created a joint defense management mechanism (Sina, March 17, 2014). It later also built a joint defense command center (ifeng.com, July 26, 2015). Sansha’s leaders use this joint defense system to enforce local policies and assert China’s maritime claims , thereby fulfilling their national sovereignty and security mandate from Beijing (ce.cn, October 9, 2016; china.com.cn, November 7, 2016; people.com.cn, July 24, 2012). The SCLE has a close operational relationship with the CCG (ocean.china.com.cn, March 26, 2015; Sina, December 8, 2015). It may have an operational relationship with the PLA Navy as well, as it appears to have participated in a joint patrol with the PLA Navy and CCG in the Paracel Islands in May 2018 (Xinhua, May 20, 2018).

Sansha Highlander is a private enterprise registered in Sansha City. It is a subsidiary of Beijing Highlander Digital Technology Co., Ltd. (北京海兰信数据科技股份有限公司, beijing hailanxin shuju keji gufen youxian gongsi), a PLA Navy supplier with a penchant for acquiring and “re-innovating” foreign technology (C4ADS, 2019). Beijing Highlander claims that Sansha Highlander’s “main business is based on the national South China Sea strategy” (data.eastmoney.com, April 15, 2020). According to Beijing Highlander’s 2015 annual report, Sansha Highlander has worked on ship communication and navigation systems, ship to shore management systems, and ocean information monitoring systems for Sansha, including a fisheries monitoring center and a fisheries law enforcement satellite communications system (data.eastmoney.com, March 31, 2016). Publicly available bidding records indicate that Sansha Highlander has provided a monitoring system for Tree Island and a sea turtle protection system for North Island and South Sand in the Paracel Islands. It may have also worked on Tree Island’s “informatized militia post” that feeds radar, automatic identification system (AIS) and video surveillance data to the joint defense command center on Woody Island (CMSI, January 2021).

Image: Section of a 2010 map of the Paracel Islands made by the Office of the Geographer, U.S. Department of State. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons).

The SCLE’s Satellite Communications System

SCLE ships rely on satellite communications while operating throughout the South China Sea, including in the Spratly Islands (sansha.hinews.cn, January 5, 2016). According to a set of bidding documents from November 2019, the SCLE’s satellite communications system was completed in June 2017.[6] This system appears to be mainly composed of a master earth station on Woody Island, shipborne stations on the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement 1 and the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement 2, ship to shore interconnection capabilities (using AIS, audio and video information, and telephone and fax data), and a vessel monitoring system (VMS). Sansha Highlander likely participated in the construction of this system, which involved a “fisheries law enforcement satellite communications system construction project.”[7]

Image: Description of the SCLE’s satellite communications system included in a set of bidding documents from November 2019 (Image Source: Author’s records).

On August 10, 2017, Sansha Highlander signed a “government procurement contract” with the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement Zhidui, agreeing to provide “law enforcement ship satellite communications system maintenance” services for one year. The contract outlines Sansha Highlander’s main obligations, which included daily inspections and hardware maintenance,[8] and specified that Sansha Highlander would maintain the main station on Woody Island, ship stations, and related shipborne communications equipment. It also required Sansha Highlander to provide on-site technical maintenance personnel and keep spare parts in the zhidui’s designated storeroom. Most importantly, the contract provides a list of “current system core equipment and links.” The contract reveals:

  • The SCLE’s satellite communications system uses the Satpro IP180C for its shipborne communications on-the-move (COTM). This appears to be a maritime VSAT antenna sold by Satpro (satpro.com, undated; satprotech.com, undated), a Chinese company based in Xi’an that focuses on mobile satellite communications equipment (satpro.com, undated).
  • The system uses the iDirect 5IF for its satellite master earth station. The iDirect 5IF appears to be the Series 15100 Universal Satellite Hub sold by iDirect and iDirect Government (idirect.net, undated; idirectgov.com, undated; isotropic.network, undated), which are American subsidiaries of Singapore Technologies (ST) Engineering (stengg.com, March 1, 2017, June 18, 2019; idirectgov.com, undated). As a defense contractor, iDirect Government markets the Series 15100 Universal Satellite Hub to U.S. government and military consumers (idirectgov.com, undated).
  • The system uses the iDirect X5 for its shipborne remote terminal stations. The iDirect X5 appears to be one of iDirect’s satellite routers (idirect.net, August 7, 2017, February 28, 2020; theastgroup.com, undated).
  • The system uses the HLD BeiDou Command Platform for its ship integrated management and HLD VMS 2.0 for its ship to shore communications. Both appear to be Highlander products.[9]
  • The system uses the AsiaSat 4 C Band for its satellite link. AsiaSat 4 is a satellite built by Boeing and operated by AsiaSat (asiasat.com, undated, undated; boeing.mediaroom.com, April 11, 2003), a Hong Kong-based company (asiasat.com, undated).

The aforementioned set of bidding documents from November 2019 confirms that the SCLE is still using the same equipment and satellite link.[10]

Image: The list of “current system core equipment and links” from the contract that the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement Zhidui and Sansha Highlander signed in August 2017 (Image Source: Author’s records).

The evidence suggests that an American company likely furnished key hardware for the SCLE’s satellite communications system.[11] The iDirect 5IF appears to form the backbone of the system’s earth station on Woody Island. The website of iDirect Government claims that the iDirect 5IF “is the most flexible satellite hub system available through iDirect Government” and that it “enables unparalleled, two-way VSAT satellite solutions” (idirectgov.com, undated). According to promotional materials, this hardware’s flexibility makes it “more efficient for any network requirement whether voice, data and video applications, business continuity networks, cellular backhauling or military-grade communication” (idirectgov.com, undated). Similarly, the iDirect X5 appears to provide the foundation of the SCLE system’s remote terminal stations on the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement 1 and Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement 2. According to a product brochure, the iDirect X5’s “high-stability oscillator allows for operating in environments with steep temperature changes, making it ideal for mobile applications like cellular backhaul and maritime” (theastgroup.com, undated).

Table: iDirect product features (idirectgov.com, undated; idirectgov.com, undated; theastgroup.com, undated).

Conclusion

A Chinese MLE force is using American satellite communications technology in the South China Sea. This should concern policymakers and regulators in Washington for several reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is that, as a MLE force permanently stationed on the front lines of the South China Sea, the SCLE is responsible for advancing China’s maritime rights and interests. In practice, this means that Sansha City uses the SCLE to enforce local policies and assert China’s excessive maritime claims at the expense of Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in the region (CMSI, January 2021). These kinds of operations not only disrupt regional stability, but also endanger the lives and livelihoods of communities across Southeast Asia (ChinaPower, August 26, 2020). In this manner, American technology is helping a Chinese MLE force carry out operations that threaten U.S. national interests.

The SCLE’s close relationship with the PLA should also raise eyebrows in Washington. Thanks to Sansha City’s efforts to promote military-civil fusion (CACR, January 28, 2021; ), the SCLE is embedded in a military, law enforcement and civilian joint defense system (people.com.cn, November 22, 2014). Through this system, the SCLE shares information with PLA entities, answers to a chain of command that includes PLA entities, and appears to have participated in at least one joint patrol with the PLA Navy (CMSI, January 2021). The SCLE’s ties to the PLA should preclude it from accessing U.S. military-grade satellite communications technology such as the iDirect 5IF, which iDirect Government also markets to American government and military consumers.

Zachary Haver (@zacharyhaver) is a Party Watch Initiative Fellow at the Center for Advanced China Research. For more information on Sansha City, see the author’s recent report with the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, entitled “China Maritime Report No. 12: Sansha City in China’s South China Sea Strategy: Building a System of Administrative Control.”

Notes

[1] Source is a scan of the signed contract, which is held by the author. The full document is available upon request.

[2] In The PLA as Organization v2.0., Kenneth Allen writes that “there is no good translation for zhidui, which is often translated as flotilla, naval ship brigade, and detachment” (CASI, undated).

[3] There are no islands in the “Zhongsha Islands.” Rather, they are composed of Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal (AMTI, March 21, 2019).

[4] More specifically, the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement Zhidui belongs to the Sansha City Emergency Management and Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Bureau (三沙市应急管理和综合行政执法局, sansha shi yingji guanli he zonghe xingzheng zhifa ju) (sansha.gov.cn, March 31, 2020). Before 2019, the Sansha City Emergency Management and Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Bureau was known as the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement Bureau (三沙市综合执法局, sansha shi zonghe zhifa ju) (sansha.gov.cn, May 21, 2020; China News, March 15, 2013).

[5] According to Andrew Chubb, China’s maritime rights and interests are composed of claims involving sovereign territorial seas and internal waters, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf rights, historic rights, and the regulation of military activities See: Andrew Chubb, “Chinese popular nationalism and PRC policy in the South China Sea,” PhD thesis, The University of Western Australia, 2016, https://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/en/publications/chinese-popular-nationalism-and-prc-policy-in-the-south-china-sea.

[6] Source is a set of bidding documents associated with the Sansha City Comprehensive Law Enforcement Zhidui’s “2019 law enforcement ship satellite communications system maintenance” contract, which are held by the author and are available upon request.

[7] As previously noted, Beijing Highlander’s 2015 annual report states that Sansha Highlander worked on a “fisheries law enforcement satellite communications system” project for Sansha.

[8] The full list of these obligations includes: (1) “daily inspections and maintenance;” (2) “regular preventative testing and adjustments;” (3) “software and hardware malfunction maintenance;” (4) “satellite network management system function upgrades, expansion, and system performance analysis;” (5) “establishing a monitoring, recording, and analysis system for satellite spectrum;” (6) “providing test environment and platform for satellite communications system equipment upgrades;” (7) “establishing and submitting electronic duty logs and operation maintenance technical files;” (8) “formulating operations plans and emergency contingency plans;” (9) “providing quarterly, half-yearly, and annual operation maintenance service reports;” (10) “organizing technical exchanges and training;” (11) “being responsible for Woody Island master earth station environmental greening and beautification;” and (12) “in accordance with owner requirements, renting AsiaSat 4, 3M communication bandwidth.”

[9] Products that Beijing Highlander and its subsidiaries develop are often branded with “HLD.”

[10] The set of documents confirms that the SCLE is still using the Satpro IP180C, iDirect 5IF, iDirect X5, and AsiaSat 4 C Wave Band. It does not mention the HLD BeiDou Command Platform or the HLD VMS 2.0.

[11] Whether the SCLE (or a company like Sansha Highlander that works with the SCLE) acquired the iDirect 5IF and iDirect X5 directly from iDirect or through a third party remains unclear.