China opens a number of weather observatories on contested Spratly Islands

Observatories on Yongshu Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef commenced operations today

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South China Sea (Image from Pixabay)

South China Sea (Image from Pixabay)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The China Meteorological Association (CMA) announced today (Nov. 1) the official opening of several weather stations scattered throughout the Spratly Islands.

Observatories located on the Yongshu Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef all officially commenced operations today. China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment also announced that construction of the central “Nansha” atmospheric observatory (南沙大氣環境綜合監測站) is complete and includes 15 separate indicators of different meteorological phenomena.

The CMA have said the facilities provide an important base for improving marine meteorological observation in the region. Data obtained from the facilities can provide real-time monitoring and early-warning forecasts for severe weather occurrences.

The central atmospheric observatory is equipped with indicators to detect PM2.5 and PM10 levels, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, greenhouse gases and black carbon particles.

According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the weather stations provide timely and reliable information on ambient air quality for the benefit of countries that border the South China Sea. The ministry also says the ability of the observatories to detect greenhouse gases and other harmful air components will play a role in promoting environmental conservation.

The Spratly Islands are central in the ongoing territorial dispute between a number of countries bordering the South China Sea. China claims ownership of almost the entire body of water, which contains the islands, and thus many are likely to view the activity as a further stake in its territorial claims.


Various claims on the South China Sea (Flickr/deedavee)

Despite official claims that the observatories are for aiding environmental conservation, China’s actions have demonstrated ecological preservation in the South China Sea is not one of its top concerns. A tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 ruled China had caused extensive damage to coral reefs via its artificial island building for military purposes. A biology professor also noted how China’s dredging of the seabed has likely smothered whole marine ecosystems of rare coral and fish species.

The South China Sea is regularly plagued by adverse weather conditions which make naval navigation difficult. If anything, it is most likely the weather observatories are to aid military operations.

Weather observation, particularly in areas where conditions are volatile, forms an important component of national defense. China has been working to eliminate blind spots in the meteorological observation of particularly contentious areas. Authorities have recently established unmanned weather stations along the Indian border in Tibet, for example, to aid transportation and communication.

It is worth noting that China was also able to install underwater monitoring devices just off the U.S. Pacific coast in October—in the name of environmental observation. The monitors were put in place with the help of Canadian authorities and are claimed to merely detect deep-sea chemicals. However, they are located in a particularly strategic waterway and their capacity to detect submarines or other naval vessels is unknown.

South China Morning Post reports there is no evidence that the monitoring devices can be associated with the Chinese military, but this would not mark the first time Chinese “researchers” abroad have concealed their military connections or true motives when engaging in collaborative projects with foreign researchers.

The Spratly Islands, known as Nansha Qundao (南沙群岛) in Chinese, comprise hundreds of islands, islets, cays, reefs, and sunken atolls. China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all currently hold competing claims to certain parts of the region. Taiwan occupies Itu Aba (Taiping Island), which is the largest of the naturally occurring Spratly Islands.