This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Late last month, a report from Chinese newspaper the South China Morning Post provoked widespread discussion among the alt-right when it claimed sensors installed in a Canadian underwater research network could be used to monitor the secret movements of US submarines operating out of bases in the Pacific Northwest. The story was shared widely on far-right platforms with some suggesting that Canada’s ties to China pose a threat to the US.
The article, from the Hong Kong-based Morning Post, outlined that new Chinese sensors were installed as part of the Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) sensor grid near the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which divides the US and Canada on the West Coast. Four new sensors from the Sanya Institute of Deep-sea Science and Engineering (IDSSE), a unit of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, were added to the network in June by the Canadian Coast Guard but they were only activated in October. In the article, it is suggested that the position of the sensors could allow the Chinese military to detect US Navy submarines based on the West Coast.
The article has proven to be provocative, earning widespread attention and thousands of shares across the internet as well as reproductions on other outlets. The idea that China has infiltrated a Canadian scientific project and placed monitoring devices near nuclear submarine bases drew interest from many but the story was most popular among far-right sources. Canadian far-right journalist and founder of Rebel Media Ezra Levant tweeted a version of the article, whilst a number of versions of the story have been posted to the notorious The_Donald subreddit. Among far-right elements on Twitter and Reddit, the suggestion is that Canada has knowingly allowed China to install these sensors under the guise of scientific cooperation, but that they can, in fact, be used by the Chinese military.
VICE contacted Ocean Networks Canada in order to better understand the nature of the sensors and what role they perform. Greig Bethel, ONC Media Relations Officer, was scathing of the SCMP report, telling VICE that ONC had requested a number of changes.
“The South China Morning Post story is inaccurate and misleading, and is based upon a faulty, assumptive, and speculative premise. IDSSE sensors were not placed ‘next to’ a US nuclear submarine base, nor near the US coast. In fact, the sensors were placed off Canada’s west coast and within Canada’s first marine protected area on ONC’s deep-sea cabled observatory to monitor the Endeavour hydrothermal vents for scientific research purposes,” he said.
Bethel went on to explain that the sensors are used to monitor vents at depths of more than 2,000 meters [more than 6,000 feet] using chemical properties at extremely short ranges of 5 meters [16 feet] or less. He added that ONC’s involvement with IDSSE “goes back at least half a decade if not longer and the IDSSE sensors have been part of the planned expansion since 2016.” Additionally, sensor data is collected under an entirely open data policy.
“Endeavour has also become the world’s most international deep-sea cabled observatory site, with contributions from research labs in Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, France, and now China,” he added.
Clearly the Morning Post article grabbed attention as it evoked secretive Cold War ideas such as the SOSUS sound surveillance system, utilized by NATO to track Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic. The reality is that China’s involvement in OCN is far more mundane, despite the article’s suggestion that recent political tensions between the US and Canada might have prompted this collaboration. “While it may be a coincidence, the deployment of the Chinese devices came less than a month after the US imposed what Ottawa described as “unacceptable” tariffs on imports of Canadian steel and aluminium,” stated the SCMP article.
VICE spoke to Timothy Choi, PhD Candidate at the Centre for Military, Security, and Strategic Studies, who said that these sensors are completely unsuited for military use.
“The impact of this array on USN operations should be minimal, as these arrays are sited over two kilometers deep next to active geothermal vents. There are minimal hydrophone sensors attached to the Endeavour array, and even those are located in a valley between two underwater ‘cliffs,’” Choi said.
Choi added that it would be virtually impossible to modify sensors like this for alternative purposes.
“The fact that these devices are installed by the Canadian Coast Guard means that any attempts by China to ‘sneak in’ additional capabilities would be incredibly risky. Having a device that can analyze local water and thermal vents for particle types is incredibly different from a device dedicated to detecting USN submarine activities, and the design of such devices would differ so obviously that questions would immediately be raised by Canada,” he said.
The location of the ONC network also makes any comparison to a SOSUS-like sonar grid unrealistic, Choi said that any sensors for practical military use would be located on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. “Such a system would make sense if placed much closer to (China’s) shores and the Western Pacific rather than all the way over here off the North American coast. Putting underwater sensors so close to Canadian and US assets would make it incredibly easy for those two countries to interdict and interfere with such devices without China's knowledge, rendering the data from such devices unreliable and useless.”
The implication that recent political tensions led Canada to sell out its closest ally to China is a huge leap, even for Chinese press, but secret underwater sensors are a tempting idea and play in to the conspiratorially-minded alt-right corners of the internet who are particularly opposed to Canada’s current Liberal government.
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Ian J. Keddie on Twitter.