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Denis Staunton: The power struggle to access the depths of South China Sea

Beijing is battling to get the global upper hand by mining rare earths from the seabed

Subject to conflicting territorial and maritime claims by China and at least five other countries and a focus of interest for many more, the South China Sea is one of the most highly militarised stretches of water in the world. China conducts regular military exercises, as does the United States which had a joint navy and marine corps exercise there over six days earlier this month.

Every time there is an increase of military activity, Li Songhai knows that he will soon receive news of whales and dolphins stranded off the coast near Sanya.

“They are extremely sensitive to noise,” he said.

Underwater explosions and the use of sonar upset whales and dolphins so much that they swim away, often into shallower waters where they become stranded and die. Li heads the Marine Mammal and Marine Bioacoustics Laboratory at the Institute of Deep Sea Science and Engineering in Sanya, a popular tourist destination because of its warm weather.


Situated at the southern tip of Hainan, a large island off China’s south coast between Hong Kong and Vietnam, Sanya is an ideal place to study the marine mammals in the South China Sea about which little was known until Li and his colleagues started their work just over a decade ago. They discovered there were more species of whales and dolphins in the waters and in greater numbers than expected, and that many of them had never been seen alive by humans. The whales stay more than 1,000m under the sea most of the time, coming up for air only once every 20 minutes and often staying below water for much longer.

“Some of these animals, like the beaked whales, are very mysterious animals,” he said.

“We know those animals exist on this globe. We only see the stranded animals that died on the beach but we have never seen the animals in the wild yet in the world for some of the species.”

The institute in Sanya, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has displayed in its lobby a model of Fendouzhe (which means striver), its latest manned submersible which can travel more than 10,000m below the sea. It is a squat, bulbous vehicle painted green, white and orange, and a pilot and two scientists can fit into its tiny cabin, which they enter through a porthole in the roof.

Li Hangzhou, one of the pilots, said it was like driving a car without having to worry about lanes or traffic lights but there are two levers: one to move forward, back, left, right, up and down; and the other to control the artificial arms and a kind of forklift in front.

On a recent deep-sea expedition, microbiologist Zhang Weijia and her team found numerous microbes on the seabed that had never been discovered before and that could be useful in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

“We also noticed a large number of bacteria that produce antibiotics,” she said.

There are so many new species down there, we don’t know what they are capable of doing. They might provide some new antibiotics that can solve the problem of antimicrobial resistance.”

China, the US and others see control of the South China Sea as strategically crucial because it contains some of the world’s most important shipping lanes. But thousands of metres below the sea another contest is under way for access to minerals called polymetallic nodules that contain the rare earths used to make batteries.

Policymakers in Washington fret that China has taken a lead over its rivals in developing technology to extract minerals from the seabed, which could enhance its already dominant position in mining rare earths. Environmentalists who fear that the competition to extract resources from the ocean floor is wrecking ecological life have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. France recently banned it in its territorial waters.

Zhang, whose expeditions continue to produce new discoveries about life thousands of metres below the sea, has a more modest proposal.

“From the ecological perspective, I would say it might be helpful to do long-term monitoring of the ecological change down there in the mining regions or areas to see what it was like before and after,” she said.

“After a trial of mining, for example, how much change was caused to this area and how long does it take to recover? Or what can we do to help it recover from the mining?”