Months before a Chinese spy balloon drifted across Alaska and Canada, the Canadian military discovered and retrieved Chinese spy buoys in the Arctic, a region of long interest to Beijing.
The Chinese buoys were monitoring U.S. submarines and the melting of ice sheets.
Retired Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Lieutenant-General Michael Day said the buoys would likely have been used to monitor U.S. nuclear submarine traffic in the Arctic, and for mapping seabeds and ice thickness. Beijing is eyeing the possibility of reducing shipping costs by traveling through Arctic waters, which are becoming more navigable as a result of climate change.
The Globe and Mail newspaper reported last week that the CAF discovered the monitoring buoys last fall.
The Canadian Department of Defense said it is “fully aware of recent efforts by China to conduct surveillance operations in Canadian airspace and maritime approaches utilizing dual-purpose technologies.”
In an email to VOA Mandarin, the Canadian Defense Department said China’s spying attempt was thwarted by the Canadian military’s Operation LIMPID, a mission dedicated to identifying threats to the country’s security by surveilling air, land and sea domains.
“We are continuing to take all appropriate measures with relevant partners and agencies to safeguard Canadian sovereignty and are working with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to protect continental security,” the email said.
Pierre Leblanc, a former commander of the Canadian Forces in the Arctic, said it has not been disclosed where the Chinese buoys were found or what type of equipment was involved but that research buoys typically detect ice movement and thickness, as well as ocean currents, water temperature and salinity.
Leblanc said it's technically possible for China to design a buoy that could be in the water or embedded in sea ice to listen to what activity is taking place below. That would be one way of assessing if there's any submarine activity under the ice cap, he told VOA Mandarin in a phone call.
Underwater listening technology has been around for a long time, said Rob Huebert, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. During the Cold War, to block the Soviet Union from using nuclear submarines, the U.S. deployed underwater microphone arrays in the North Atlantic Basin and used what was known as the Sound Surveillance System for the first time.
Since February 4, Canada and the United States have discovered high-altitude monitoring balloons and other unidentified aerial objects from China in California, Alaska, Yukon and Lake Huron in the U.S. There is no evidence that the last three U.S. downed objects were linked to Chinese espionage.
Huebert said in a phone interview that the function, number, origin of Chinese buoys remain unknown, as is the question of if they drifted into place or were deliberately located.
“Worst-case scenario, let's just say the three other items were Chinese, and then you have the buoys coming in. And then the question has to be asked, ‘Why all of a sudden and all at once?’ And so, is that somehow related? What would be the rationale for doing this type of surveillance both on the surface, subsurface presumably, and aerospace surveillance?” he said.
Canada has more than 162,000 kilometers of coastline in the Arctic — 75% of its total coastline — but lacks the means to address gaps in its oversight of Arctic waters. According to a report released in November by Canada's Auditor General Karen Hogan, the main problems include incomplete surveillance, insufficient data on vessel traffic, poor means of sharing information on maritime traffic and outdated equipment.
China has long maintained an interest in the Arctic.
“It has sent high-level figures to the region 33 times in the last two decades and participates in most major Arctic institutions,” according to a report by the BBC. “China has also expanded its icebreaking fleet and sent naval vessels to the north, often under the guise of scientific research expeditions.”
The National Strategy for the Arctic Region issued by the United States in October 2022 accused China of using scientific activities to carry out military-civilian research in the Arctic.
The strategy “outlines four pillars to organize action: security, climate change and environmental protection, sustainable economic development, and international cooperation and governance,” according to The Wilson Center.
As global warming melts the ice caps, China hopes to open a shorter sea trade route to Europe, according to the BBC.
But Canada considers the Northwest Passage, a sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in Canada's Arctic Archipelago, to be its waters and governed by Canadian law.
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy, told VOA Mandarin in a phone call that China has mapped the seafloor of the Northwest Passage, announced the construction of military infrastructure in the Arctic, and is actively building new multidisciplinary data sources to understand the polar regions. It is also developing small robots that move under the ice, new icebreakers, observation systems to track the movement of glaciers and more advanced deep sea exploration equipment.
“Up until now, China has been asking permission every time they send their ships through the Northwest Passage,” McCuaig-Johnston said. “But there could come a day when they decide not to give Canada a heads up that they're coming through and just start to treat it as if it's an international passage,” she said.
Leblanc said Canada can ban Chinese ships from entering and exiting the Northwest Passage, if necessary, “although China may claim that it's an international strait that is not Canada's position.”
He continued, “Canada has enforced its sovereignty over those waters for decades, and Canada will continue to do that. So, if China was to act in a negative way, Canada could prevent that ship or any of their ships from coming through the Northwest Passage.”
Leblanc said, “If we suspect that in fact, they are actively using this scientific angle of various equipment to actually do the dual use, then Canada should restrict those systems from operating in Canada and prevent science from being executed in Canada, because of the concern of the dual use of the systems.”
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.