China is planning to build a manned experimental base below the South China Sea in a drive to exploit mineral resources and bolster its territorial claim to the disputed waters. If it goes ahead, it would be the first such facility in history.
News of the project was announced in a presentation by the Chinese science ministry.
The deep sea contains treasures that remain undiscovered and undeveloped, and in order to obtain these treasures we have to control key technologies in getting into the deep sea, discovering the deep sea, and developing the deep sea– Chinese President Xi Jinping
Although the presentation did not give any costs or timetables for the development of the scheme, the construction of a "deep-sea experimental platform" was mentioned in China’s five-year economic plan (2016-20), which was approved in March.
Here it was ranked number nine on a list of 100 science and technology projects.
Another indication of China’s ambitions was given in a remarks by President Xi Jinping to reporters at a national science conference in May. He said: "The deep sea contains treasures that remain undiscovered and undeveloped, and in order to obtain these treasures we have to control key technologies in getting into the deep sea, discovering the deep sea, and developing the deep sea."
The station, which would be capable of being relocated, may be used to support China’s claim to the oil and gas reserves that are thought to be located in the area. In 2012, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation estimated that area held around 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The planning for the deep-sea station is being led by the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, according to a statement on the website of the science ministry, quoted by Bloomberg. Once operational, the station would host dozens of crew members who could remain underwater for up to a month.
The initiative fits in with a general trend in the oil and gas industry to replace conventional topside platforms with subsea "factories" located on the sea bed, although these would be operated remotely from onshore control rooms.
A number of oil companies and their engineering contractors have been working on methods of powering and controlling equipment located as far as 3km below the surface of the water, and as much as 600km away from shore.
At present, subsea technology is concerned only with oil and gas extraction, but in future it may involve mining rare elements.
China’s top 10 research priorities:
- Quantum communications and computation
- Brain research
- National cyberspace security
- Deep space exploration
- Clean, efficient use of coal
- Industrial, medical and military robots
- Applications of gene science
- Big data applications
- Deep-sea experimental platform
- New Arctic observatory, Antarctic station
Image: The disputed South China Sea, where the base would be located (CIA, NASA, China Maritime Safety Administration)