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China’s Deep Ocean Dives May Not Be Quite What They Seem

China’s Deep Ocean Dives May Not Be Quite What They Seem

Saturday, 23 October, 2021 - 04:00

China recently sank to new depths, sending the Haidou 1, a remote-controlled submarine, 10,908 meters into the murky waters of the Mariana Trench. That’s exactly one meter past the submersible’s previous world-record mark. For the engineers and oceanographers involved, the feat means bragging rights and a point of national pride. For China’s leadership, it’s something far bigger.


For much of the past 500 years, China had little interest in projecting influence beyond its own coasts. That isolationist impulse only began to ease in the 1970s, as the country began its economic opening. Planners quickly recognized that China’s long-term growth prospects would be determined, in large part, by access to raw materials, much of which would need to be imported. That didn’t appeal to policy makers who preferred self-sufficiency. Thus, the seabed — especially in international waters — loomed as an attractive opportunity for investment.


The payoffs could be huge. By one peer-reviewed estimate, just one section of the seabed — stretching from Hawaii to Mexico — contains more manganese, cobalt and nickel than all known terrestrial sources, as well as huge amounts of copper. The problem is that it’s challenging and expensive to retrieve metals embedded in rocks in environmentally sensitive areas, sometimes miles below the surface (which is why no one has yet done it on a commercial basis).


But the difficulty of the challenge has only seemed to increase China’s determination. In the 1980s, it began working on exploration contracts for deep-sea mining. In 1990, it established a research institute to work on the needed technology. Over the next three decades, the government’s ardor for deep-sea resources didn’t abate. “The deep sea is filled with treasures that aren’t even close to being understood or developed,” said President Xi Jinping in 2016. “If we want these treasures, then we must master key technologies for exploring the deep sea, surveying the deep sea and developing the deep sea.”


For Xi, the goal isn’t just the exploitation of resources. Over the decades, China has developed a roadmap for fulfilling complex technical ambitions that also have political objectives. Often, the first step is creating an entity to connect tech companies with state research institutes. As one recent example, the National Deep Sea Center in Qingdao has helped develop Haidou 1 and other AUVs, while also researching mining submersibles.


In parallel, China has long pursued benign-looking research projects that can have multiple uses, including military ones. Since the late 1970s, it has undertaken an ambitious effort to map the seabed. These surveys are often conducted by oceanographers with purely scientific goals. But their intentions might not always match those of their employers. In 2017, researchers on the country’s most advanced survey ship conceded that they share their findings with the military and other government departments. Tom Shugart, an expert in submarine warfare at the Center for a New American Security, told me that “having a really good detailed map of the sea bottom, especially in areas you think are areas for future war fighting, is very useful militarily.”


It may also prove useful commercially, especially for a country that’s eager to exploit international waters. For now, the International Seabed Authority, which regulates deep-sea mining, is still a few years away from issuing permits to mine (rather than explore). But China’s mapping activities, combined with its technology investments, are laying the basis for it to assert claims if and when disputes arise. It’s similar to the approach China has taken in Antarctica, where it’s become the leading investor in research stations, airfields and other infrastructure. Those investments, the thinking goes, create a foundation for asserting future resource rights.


For now, the US remains the pre-eminent deep-sea power. But China is rapidly closing the gap. Almost as important, submersibles such as Haidou 1 are reshaping how the world perceives Chinese maritime capabilities. For the government, that’s precisely the point, and in coming years it expects its growing navy and merchant fleet to turn perception into reality. A slowing economy, political change or other challenges could well alter this trajectory. But for now, China’s course is set.


Bloomberg


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