The tradition of claiming territory by being the first to plant a flag on it has a long and dubious history.
But the practice has not died out. A Chinese submarine raised the banner of the People’s Republic on the floor of the fiercely contested South China Sea last week. Never mind that no one (other than the odd passing fish) will ever see the flag – it sends a strong message to China’s neighbours about its intention to rule the Asian waves.
The flag was thrust into the seabed at a depth of 3,759 metres, something of a technical achievement. “[It] marks China becoming one of the few countries that possesses manned deep-diving technology,” boasted Liu Feng, the project’s director.
Apparently, only four other countries (Russia, the US, France and Japan) have submarines that can descend deeper than 3,500 metres. And on paper at least, the sub built by the State Oceanic Administration and the Ministry of Science and Technology beats them all. It’s designed to dive down to 7,000 metres.
WiC has written before about tensions in the South China Sea (WiC62), as well as China’s expanding naval ambitions. Recent exercises in the Yellow Sea were closely watched by other countries in the region. Protecting its merchant fleet from pirates off the horn of Africa, or mounting manoeuvres closer to home, the Chinese navy clearly intends to become a serious sea-based power.
The South China Sea covers strategic sea-lanes and rich (though dwindling) fisheries. More importantly, it is thought to have rich deposits of oil and gas locked away under the sea floor (WiC37). Last week’s work seemed to have those resources very much in mind. “We have seen lots of strange marine creatures at the bottom of the South China Sea… and yet they were not what we came all the way for,” explained Zhao Junhai, one of the sub’s designers. “We were looking for minerals.”
As if to make the project’s aims crystal clear, the vessel’s name has been changed – twice. Initially callled ‘Ocean Base One’, then ‘Harmony’, it now sets sail under the less ambiguous ‘Sea Dragon’.
China is far from alone in using ‘flag tactics’ to stake territorial claims. A similar race is under way in the Arctic now that global warming is opening access to mineral deposits deep beneath the ice cap. In 2007 the Russians even managed to get a flag down onto the seabed below the North Pole, although neighbouring countries laughed it off as having no legal standing. It didn’t stop you planting one on the Moon, was Moscow’s response to withering comment from Washington.
Much like the Arctic, aspirations in the South China Sea are generating a quarrelsome crowd. The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam all have claims in the region too.
But the Chinese don’t seem to be in a conciliatory mood. “[The flag] might provoke some countries, but we’ll be alright,” insists Zhao Junhai. “The South China Sea belongs to China – let’s see who dares to challenge that.”
Further, he promised the South China Morning Post that he would be laying down maritime markers all the way to the borders of the Philippines, if he had to.
And next the big one: “We’ll aim for the Mariana Trench,” he confided (which, at about 11km depth, is the earth’s deepest point).
It’s not clear if an exploration of the Trench is expected to reveal mineral treasures. But Zhao’s deepsea horizons – rather like some of his attitudes to borders – seem to have few bounds.
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