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China science

Beijing explores energy-rich area of South China Sea where ‘flammable ice’ – a potential new gas source – is found

Newest vessels take samples from ocean floor at site of China’s first find of active methane hydrates, a potential new natural gas source 

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 9:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 11:53pm

China has carried out deepwater exploration in an energy-rich area of the disputed South China Sea, its minerals research agency said on Wednesday. This comes as the latest in a series of manoeuvres by China in the sea, which it claims to own despite competing claims by other countries.

Two of the country’s latest underwater vessels – which can dive to a depth of 4,500m – were used for the three-day mission last weekend, carrying out scientific research at an ocean site west of the Pearl River estuary in southern China. 

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The area, dubbed “Seahorse Cold Seep” by Beijing, is the location of China’s first find of active methane hydrates, an energy resource, in the South China Sea, discovered during exploration in 2015. 

Also called “flammable ice”, methane hydrates have been identified as a potential new natural gas source for China, which still imports the majority of its energy. 

The Seahorse remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) took samples from the ocean floor area, or cold seep, with methane drillers and detectors, and also used sonars and scanning equipment during the exploration, the China Geological Survey said.

Its newest manned submersible, Shenhai Yongshi, meanwhile mapped out the distribution of the cold seep and the area’s geography, the government agency said.

“We have found that there are a lot of methane bubbles from this South China Sea area,” Chen Zongheng, an ROV expert with the China Geological Survey, was quoted as saying by state broadcaster CCTV.

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China’s territorial claims to most of the strategic South China Sea overlap with those of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The country has been actively developing its drilling techniques to get access to some of the world’s most promising oil and gas deposits in the resource-rich waterway.

As well as marine scientific research, Beijing has also been building up its naval and coastguard presence in the contested waters, building artificial islands and has imposed unilateral fishing moratoriums. 

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said China was trying to make use of its technology to get the advantage in resource exploration over its rivals in the South China Sea.

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“There are certainly commercial, economic and military benefits that can be derived from these [scientific expeditions],” Koh said, adding that they could be interpreted in various ways, “including allegations of military muscle-flexing”. 

“More pertinently, these activities are broadly also interpreted as part of the larger schema of Beijing’s quest to dominate the South China Sea,” he said.

Koh said that with Beijing expected to continue investing in marine scientific research, other Southeast Asian states would find it difficult to catch up because they lacked funding, assets and expertise.

He added that while militarisation in the South China Sea tended to get attention, marine scientific research activities helped to “further one’s claim to a disputed area”. 

“In the absence of an officially outlined South China Sea strategy, we can piece together what China has been doing thus far ... These all contribute towards the broader aims of not just enhancing China’s maritime power stature, but give it the necessary strategic leverage or even bargaining chips to handle the disputes,” he said.