How American GPS Technology Protects Territorial Waters of Smaller Asian Countries | Hacker Noon

@hughharsonoHugh Harsono

Hugh writes about cyberspace, digital currencies, economics, foreign affairs, and technology.

Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) have long been utilized by naval participants in Great Power Competition (GPC) to project power within certain regions throughout the globe. Both the United States and the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) have also used unilateral and joint naval movements to project power specifically in Southeast Asia, where maritime sovereignty remains a hotly contested topic.

With the current age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, one critically long-standing piece of technology that can be leveraged to safeguard territorial waters and document coastal incursions is the American-made global-positioning satellite (GPS) system. If integrated properly with technologies like 5G, blockchain, and other new systems while utilizing decentralized Internet practices, GPS can be used to protect the sovereignty of a nation’s coastlines and waters.

Effects of PRC violations of maritime sovereignty

The PRC’s maritime militia, officially called the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) by the U.S. Department of Defense, is a significant force multiplier in the era of GPC.

The PAFMM enables the PRC to strategically place itself and establish de-facto presence in disputed areas, providing the PRC power projection capabilities through the violation of sovereign waters. This method disrupting a nation-state using the PAFMM as a semi-deniable instrument is one that has proven highly effective so far, as evidenced by direct PRC maritime militia involvement in disputes throughout Southeast Asia, to include incidents like the 2020 ramming of a Vietnamese fishing boat and the 2019 sinking of a Filipino vessel.

PRC maritime militia ships are often indistinguishable from other fishing
vessels, with some of them simply being fishing boats with communications capabilities to People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) forces. However, when the time calls, PAFMM do serve as an auxiliary force to the PLAN, providing a logistics and surveillance support system to PRC military operations.

This presents an interesting conundrum for dealing with such a force, with PRC maritime militia vessels having the capabilities to integrate into military operations and disrupt a nation-state’s activities.

However, the PAFMM is not dedicated to such roles in a full-time capacity, in contrast to traditional military naval vessels. Furthermore, the PRC’s policy to subsidize fishing vessels further confuses the situation, with these subsidies undoubtedly co-opting fishermen into becoming part of the PAFMM.

Nation-state economic loss and ecosystem disruption are further effects of such PRC violations of maritime sovereignty. Chinese overfishing in Vietnamese coastal waters have resulted in significantly reduced economic
 in the Vietnamese fishing industry, who only have a mere 30,000 offshore fishing boats in contrast to over 700,000 Chinese vessels.

Additionally, a 70% decline of squid in the Sea of Japan has been attributed directly to Chinese overfishing in North Korean waters, with vast amounts of squid being fished by Chinese vessels during their traditional migration pattern. This has caused a reduction in the number of squid able to re-populate the Sea of Japan, thus disrupting the squid ecosystem as a whole. These factors are just two ways that highlight how the violation of coastal sovereignty can have significant effects on a country’s economic health and population.

Leveraging GPS to protect territorial waters

The American-invented GPS is the oldest global navigation satellite system (GNSS) among a handful of other current enterprises, with others including Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), the European
Union’s Galileo, Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), and China’s
BeiDou (BDS) satellite navigation system.

In a comparison between different GPS systems, studies have shown that GPS maintains an advantage over BDS, with some BDS satellites having occasional interruptions and short observation times over some global areas. Additionally, GPS can realize absolute accuracy at 20-30cm, in comparison to BDS’ accuracy of 1m for public use. Therefore, GPS is clearly
the best tool to capture PRC violations of sovereign waters.

GPS can and should be used as a tool by nation-states to safeguard
their territories and to document violations of maritime sovereignty. The widespread usage of GPS to collect and categorize such activities would provide a litany of concrete evidence highlighting these abuses, giving proper precedence to any naval counteractions conducted by said country or by international bodies like the United Nations.

GPS implementation and integration in local fishing vessels, naval elements, and even for recreational watercraft could help a nation protect itself against foreign projections of soft power, helping to safeguard national economic and environmental ecosystems.

Integrating emerging technologies and decentralized Internet with GPS

The development of increasingly advanced technologies gives further rise to the ability of nation-states to protect their sovereign waters by enlisting the help of their civilian populations. Many countries in Southeast Asia maintain a mobile-first approach to Internet adoption, giving a voice to every country’s citizenry through Internet access.

The advent of additional advanced technology tools to include smart water sensors, geo-fences, Internet-of-Things devices, and 5G technologies can help further integrate GPS into individuals’ lives with the goal of documenting violations of maritime sovereignty.

Blockchain-based mapping represents another addition to enhancing GPS technology. Companies like Streetcred, which was acquired by Snap in 2021, have developed blockchain-based systems for mapping and collecting location data. Having these types of open-mapping platforms built by crypto-cartographers represents an additional layer of verification
to any reporting conducted by individuals using GPS.

These systems would provide a democratized and decentralized way to provide location data in alignment with decentralized Internet principles. If used in conjunction with GPS, such blockchain applications could help further provide indisputable evidence of PRC violations of maritime sovereignty.


The reporting of coastal sovereignty violations by the PRC is an issue that must continue to be documented with significant emphasis in Southeast Asia. The use of PRC FONOPs to wreak havoc on a country’s economic
and environmental systems is one that must receive attention from other participants in Great Power Competition.

Emerging technologies and concepts like blockchain and the decentralized Internet can update GPS as the premier tool to utilize to help countries document such power abuses, giving a voice to everyday individuals to protect their nation’s individual sovereignties.

by Hugh Harsono @hughharsono. Hugh writes about cyberspace, digital currencies, economics, foreign affairs, and technology. Read my stories


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