China's deep-sea dives may not be what they appear to be

The ocean floor will be mapped for a variety of scientific and commercial purposes. The military could be interested as well.

China recently plunged to unprecedented depths in the Mariana Trench, sending the Haidou 1, a remote-controlled submarine, below 10,908 meters. That's one meter higher than the submersible's previous world record. For the engineers and oceanographers involved, the achievement is a source of national pride and bragging rights. It's about something far greater for China's leaders.

China has shown little interest in expanding influence beyond its own coastlines for much of the last 500 years. As the country began to open up economically in the 1970s, the isolationist instinct began to fade. China's long-term economic prospects, planners rapidly realized, would be decided in large part by availability to raw materials, much of which would have to be imported. That didn't sit well with policymakers who desired independence. As a result, the seabed loomed as an appealing business possibility, particularly in international seas.

The benefits might be enormous. According to one peer-reviewed estimate, a single portion of the seabed running from Hawaii to Mexico has more manganese, cobalt, nickel, and copper than all known terrestrial sources, as well as massive amounts of copper. The difficulty is that retrieving metals imbedded in rocks in ecologically sensitive places, which can be kilometers below the surface, is difficult and expensive (which is why no one has yet done it on a commercial basis).

The difficulties of the issue, on the other hand, appears to have only strengthened China's resolve. It began working on deep-sea mining exploration contracts in the 1980s. It founded a research institution in 1990 to concentrate on the required technologies. The government's enthusiasm for deep-sea resources did not wane during the following three decades. “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.

Parallel to this, China has long undertaken seemingly innocent scientific programs with numerous applications, including military ones. It has been undertaking an extensive attempt to map the seafloor since the late 1970s. Oceanographers regularly perform these surveys for strictly scientific reasons. However, their aims may not always be the same as those of their employers. Researchers aboard the country's most modern survey ship admitted in 2017 that they share their results with the military and other government agencies. "Having a really excellent precise picture of the sea floor, especially in places you anticipate are locations for future war fighting, is highly valuable militarily," Tom Shugart, a submarine warfare expert at the Center for a New American Security, told me.

It may also be financially beneficial, particularly for a government wanting to utilize international waterways. For the time being, the International Seabed Authority, which oversees deep-sea mining, is a few years away from awarding mining licences (rather than explore). However, China's mapping initiatives, together with its technological advances, are creating the groundwork for it to establish rights in the event of a disagreement. China has followed a similar strategy in Antarctica, where it has become the largest investor in research stations, airfields, and other infrastructure. Those investments, so the reasoning goes, lay the groundwork for future resource claims.

For the time being, the United States is the preeminent deep-sea power. China, on the other hand, is quickly bridging the gap. Submersibles like the Haidou 1 are altering how the rest of the world views China's maritime capabilities. That is precisely the aim for the government, and it wants its expanding navy and commercial fleet to transform perception into reality in the coming years. This trend might be skewed by a faltering economy, political upheaval, or other obstacles. But, for the time being, China's trajectory is fixed.

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