China's plans to secure sovereignty over the South China Sea were illuminated this week in a discovery of the nation's blueprints for a deep sea "space station."
The manned deep sea platform would sit 9,800 feet under disputed waters in the South China Sea, and would be a key resource in China's offshore mining efforts, according to a Chinese Science Ministry presentation recently viewed by Bloomberg. Dozens of crew members would be able to survive underwater for up to a month at a time on the station.
Little is publicly known about the project, but China included the construction of an oceanic base in its five-year economic plan, and deep sea exploration was a key priority under the country's Scientific Innovation 2030 initiative. So far, no one has ever attempted to man an underwater station at this depth for an extended amount of time.
In 2012, China announced its intentions to build a mobile, nuclear-powered underwater mining station that would house a crew of 33 people for two months. The Pacific Ocean base was proposed by the China Ship Scientific Research Centre, and likely secured backing from the nation's 863 Program, a fund known to bankroll military R&D projects. Whether this station has ties to the South China Sea platform is unclear.
President Xi Jinping has not been coy about his efforts to assert dominance over the highly disputed waters. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines are currently locked in a conflict over territorial and jurisdictional claims to the region's potential wealth of natural resources. The South China Sea is believed to hold an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and also possesses one-third of the world's shipping routes. Approximately $5.3 trillion of total annual trade passes through the South China Sea.
"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," Xi said of China's plans to exploit the ocean's resources.
China has been visibly flexing its marine science arm for past five years. In 2012, "oceanauts" descended more than 22,000 feet into the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench aboard the manned submersible Jiaolong. The mission was hailed as scientific in nature, but was also a bold demonstration of the country's deep sea technological capabilities. Over the next five years, China has stated plans to build both manned and unmanned submersibles able to surpass the hadal zone—the deepest parts of the ocean.
Researchers at Shanghai Ocean University have also developed a submersible "movable laboratory" capable of operating at more than 13,000 feet underwater. And later this year, Chinese oceanographers with the State Oceanic Administration intend to launch a deep sea exploration project in Antarctica.
It's extremely likely that China will operate its underwater "space station" as both a resource mining platform and a military base. The country has long resisted freedom of navigation and the presence of foreign militaries in its exclusive economic zone, citing that international law prohibits governments from carrying out intelligence gathering activities.
China recently revealed its "Underwater Great Wall" project—a network of sensors capable of detecting US and Russian submarines—which, in addition to its new deep sea base, would lay the groundwork for a mass surveillance system underneath the South China Sea.
"China's project will be mainly for civil use, but we can't rule out it will carry some military functions," Xu Liping, a senior researcher for Southeast Asian affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Bloomberg. "Many countries in the world have been researching these kind of deep water projects and China is just one of those nations."
The China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, according to a statement by China's Science Ministry, will be leading the deep sea project. It's unclear how much the station will cost, but rising conflicts in the South China Sea are expected increase the country's defense budget from $146 billion to $233 billion by 2020.