The project could renew a row over disputed waters Beijing has launched an ambitious project to explore and develop natural gas hydrates in the South China Sea as part of its strategy to achieve energy security. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has set up a new research centre in Guangzhou for exploration and scientific development of this potentially important fuel source. In a sign of the importance attached to the project, Jiang Mianheng , a vice-president of the academy and a son of former president Jiang Zemin , presided over the opening ceremony. The central government's plan to increase its presence in the contested waters, which are rich in resources and crisscrossed by important sea lanes, could spark renewed fears and suspicions among regional neighbours. The mainland, Taiwan and six Southeast Asian countries have all staked claims in the region, which centres on the Spratly Islands. In November 2002, the central government signed a joint declaration with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, pledging to resolve territorial disputes through peaceful means. But developing the South China Sea has been a long-standing policy of the central government. The commander of the navy's South China Sea fleet, Rear Admiral Wu Shengli, said in March that Beijing must safeguard its national interests by developing the archipelago. Beijing's plans for the region centre on scientific research into natural gas hydrates. In co-operation with German scientists from the University of Kiel, the first team from the research centre would be sent to explore and collect samples in the South China Sea next month, according to the Guangzhou Daily. Natural gas hydrates are solid crystals like ice that consist of gas molecules enclosed within water molecules. They are found in marine sediment in permafrost regions and beneath the ocean on the continental shelves. The field research will be carried out in Chinese territorial waters.