October 24, 2021

SHOCKER: China’s Deep Ocean Dives May Not Be Quite What They Seem: Mapping the ocean floor will have plenty of scientific and commercial uses. The military, too, may be interested.

By one peer-reviewed estimate, just one section of the seabed — stretching from Hawaii to Mexico — contains more manganese, cobalt and nickel than all known terrestrial sources, as well as huge amounts of copper. The problem is that it’s challenging and expensive to retrieve metals embedded in rocks in environmentally sensitive areas, sometimes miles below the surface (which is why no one has yet done it on a commercial basis).

But the difficulty of the challenge has only seemed to increase China’s determination. In the 1980s, it began working on exploration contracts for deep-sea mining. In 1990, it established a research institute to work on the needed technology. Over the next three decades, the government’s ardor for deep-sea resources didn’t abate. “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.

In parallel, China has long pursued benign-looking research projects that can have multiple uses, including military ones. Since the late 1970s, it has undertaken an ambitious effort to map the seabed. These surveys are often conducted by oceanographers with purely scientific goals. But their intentions might not always match those of their employers. In 2017, researchers on the country’s most advanced survey ship conceded that they share their findings with the military and other government departments. Tom Shugart, an expert in submarine warfare at the Center for a New American Security, told me that “having a really good detailed map of the sea bottom, especially in areas you think are areas for future war fighting, is very useful militarily.”

Do tell.

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