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 and inaccessible parts of the ocean floor, which are rich in oil, minerals and other resources that the Chinese would like to mine. And many of those resources happen to lie in areas where China has clashed repeatedly with its neighbors over territorial claims.
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.
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 communications, lost nuclear arms, sunken submarines and hundreds of warheads left over from missile tests.
While a single small craft cannot reel in all these treasures, it does put China in an excellent position to go after them.
“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.