- China has deployed underwater drones in the strategic waterway for scientific purposes, but the technology could be used as a political and military tool
- Beijing claims a massive section of the South China Sea that extends roughly 1,000 miles from its southern shores — many other nations dispute those claims
The world's second-largest economy has been deploying disruptive technology that could strengthen its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
Late last month, Beijing dropped a dozen underwater drones, also known as unmanned underwater vehicles, in an unspecified location in the international waterway to carry out "scientific observations," state-run media outlet Xinhua reported.
The torpedo-shaped vehicles — called Haiyi, or sea wings in Mandarin — will remain underwater for a month, according to reports. In March, one device hit a depth of 6,329 meters, breaking an earlier record held by a U.S. vessel, Xinhua said.
China claims a massive section of the South China Sea that extends roughly 1,000 miles from its southern shores. The huge area is home to significant energy deposits and the world's busiest shipping routes, but Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also assert sovereign rights over parts of the international waterway.
The use of autonomous drones raises a number of questions as to whether Beijing is deploying the technology to support its aggressive expansion in the geopolitical hotspot.
Scientific purposes may be the official line from Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration, but political intentions can't be ignored. According to one theory, underwater drones are being utilized as a symbol of supremacy.
"It is a clear attempt to signal a capability associated with leading powers in terms of technology, which often translates to prestige," said Margaret Kosal, an associate professor at Georgia Tech who specializes in the role of emerging technologies for security.
Map courtesy of CSIS
Underwater drones are a demonstration of maritime strength and one of the many ways China is attempting to challenge the Western-dominated world order, she continued.
The U.S. Navy employs around 130 of those gadgets to collect oceanographic data. Last year, the Chinese navy seized one that was active in the South China Sea, sparking alarm.
Aside from being a political symbol, underwater drones can also help the mainland enforce claims in the South China Sea.
Data collected from the tools is applicable to both civilian marine scientific knowledge as well as military operations, said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow specialized in maritime security at Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University. "Information about underwater terrain, salinity and thermal layers are extremely useful for planning and executing submarine and anti-submarine operations."
The vehicles also serve as an additional tool for reconnaissance operations, which means personnel don't need to get too close to foreign assets or coasts, Koh continued.
However, there is a downside.
While some sea drones can transmit near-real time info and be deployed for mapping, water as a medium slows signals, Kosal cautioned.
Mainland scientists, however, deny any political intentions.
July's operation was strictly focused on collecting scientific data and was completely unrelated to China's sovereignty claims, Liu Xiaobo, associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a research organization based in Beijing and Hainan, told CNBC.
Information on ocean conditions will help Beijing perform "international obligations, including navigation security, maritime humanitarian assistance and marine disaster prediction," he continued.
Should outright confrontation ever break out in the international waterway, Beijing may be able to use underwater drones, or UUVs, to their advantage.
"The ability of UUVs to detect and hunt submarines, thereby rendering oceans transparent, potentially changes the way of warfare," Sylvia Mishra, junior fellow at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, said in a note earlier this month. "It is precisely why Beijing has been investing in a burgeoning underwater drones industry, which enjoys considerable national-level funding and support."
UUVs may be presently used for scientific research, but they could be upgraded for underwater combat, patrol, mine-sweeping and submarine detection operations, Mishra continued. "It is likely that the People's Liberation Army will utilize UUVs for military purposes."
Other countries that lay claim to parts of the strategic region are closely monitoring Beijing's actions, but the use of drones isn't expected to be a flash point.
"UUVs themselves are not akin to stationing a garrison of troops ... at best, they serve as tools that further China's ambitions to dominate the South China Sea maritime realm," said Koh.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and other claimants haven't yet officially voiced any objections.
July's operation could be testing responses from territorial neighbors and the U.S., but "if the People's Republic of China wanted to be overt or confrontational, using unmanned sea vehicles really aren't the way to go," said Kosal.