New Empires of the Oceans


Imperialism and oceanography often go hand in hand. The British Admiralty’s surveys of the world’s coastlines and shallow seas during the 18th and 19th centuries brought a wealth of scientific knowledge. They also did no harm to the ability of British merchantmen to navigate the world—and of British warships to dominate it.

Viewed from that perspective, China’s southern neighbours might be slightly nervous about a meeting held in Shanghai on January 26th and 27th, which gathered the country’s oceanographers (including several who work abroad) to discuss a project called South China Sea-Deep. As its name suggests, this project is intended to explore the South China Sea, a patch of water with an area of 3.5m square kilometres and a maximum depth of 5.5km that China’s government regards (despite competing claims from every other country with littoral waters there) in much the same way that ancient Romans regarded the Mediterranean: mare nostrum.

The scientists in question disclaim any intent to push back frontiers other than those of human understanding. They also say the project’s focus is on basic scientific matters rather than a search for things like oil and mineral resources. No doubt that is true—just as it is true that many who sailed under the Admiralty’s aegis were motivated by a thirst for pure knowledge. But knowledge is power, and if Chinese scientists are the first to explore the depths of the South China Sea, then Chinese businessmen will be better placed than others to exploit any commercially valuable finding that they make, and the Chinese navy will be better placed to defend them.

South China Sea-Deep is led by Wang Pinxian, of Tongji University in Shanghai, a doyen of the field. To assist him, he will be able to call on the services of Jiaolong, China’s latest deep-submersible vehicle which is designed to dive to a depth of 7km. Last July Jiaolong managed 3.8km. The craft’s handlers aim to push that to 5km this summer and to the full amount next year…. The budget for South China Sea-Deep is 150m yuan ($22m), to be paid for over the next eight years by the National Natural Science Foundation, a government agency based in Beijing. Nor is this China’s only oceanographic enterprise. A deep-sea technology centre in Qingdao will cost 400m yuan and a network of sea floor observatories similar to Canada’s Neptune programme and America’s Ocean Observatories Initiative will clock up another 1.4 billion yuan. Money well spent, no doubt, in the interests of pure research. Still, it cannot hurt, as Zhang Gongcheng, of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, observed in his talk at the meeting, that the reserve of natural gas in the South China Sea is estimated at 200 trillion cubic metres. Pure research is all very well. But buttering a few parsnips at the same time can do no harm.

Excerpt, Oceanography in China: Who rules the waves?, Economist, Feb. 12, 2011, at 90

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