When three Chinese scientists plunged to the bottom of the South China Sea in a tiny submarine early this summer, they did more than simply plant their nation’s flag on the dark seabed.
The men, who descended more than two miles in a craft the size of a small truck, also signaled Beijing’s intention to take the lead in exploring remote parts of the ocean floor, which are rich in oil and other resources. And many of those resources happen to lie in areas where China has clashed repeatedly with its neighbours.
After the flag planting, which was done in secret but recorded in a video, Beijing quickly turned the feat of technology into a show of bravado.
“It is a great achievement,” Liu Feng, director of the dives, was quoted as saying by China Daily, an English-language newspaper, which telegraphs government positions.
The global seabed is littered with what experts say is trillions of dollars’ worth of mineral nodules as well as many objects of intelligence value: undersea cables carrying diplomatic links, lost nuclear arms, sunken submarines and hundreds of warheads left over from missile tests.
“They’re in it for a penny and a pound,” said Don Walsh, a pioneer of deep-ocean diving who recently visited the submersible and its makers in China. “It’s a very deliberate program.”
The small craft that made the trip — named Jiaolong, after a mythical sea dragon — was unveiled publicly late last month after eight years of secretive development. It is designed to go deeper than any other in the world, giving China access to 99.8 percent of the ocean floor.
Technically, it is a submersible. These craft differ from submarines in their small size, their need for a mother ship on the surface, and their ability to dive extraordinarily far despite the darkness and the crushing pressures. The world has only a few.
Jiaolong is meant to go as deep as 7,000 meters, or 4.35 miles, edging out the current global leader. Japan’s Shinkai 6500 can go as deep as 6,500 meters, outperforming craft “all over the world,” according to its makers. Russia, France and the US lag further behind in the game of going deep.
American experts familiar with the Chinese undersea program say it is unusual in that Beijing has little experience in the daunting field. As a result, China is moving cautiously. Jiaolong’s sea trials began quietly last year and are to continue until 2012, its dives going deeper in increments.
“They’re being very cautious...They respect what they don’t know and are working hard to learn,” Dr. Walsh said.