China Unveils Extensive Subsurface Mapping of South China Sea

Geological Survey Reveals Nearly 400 Seabed Features, Signaling Dual Significance for Civilian Development and Military Strategy


On Tuesday, China unveiled the outcomes of an extensive geological survey conducted in the South China Sea, revealing the identification and naming of nearly 400 subsurface features within the maritime expanse. Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty over a significant portion of the South China Sea, encompassing exclusive economic zones belonging to neighboring nations, has been a contentious issue. Despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague nullifying China’s expansive maritime claims in 2016, the nation has chosen to disregard the ruling.

Yang Chupeng, an official from the Guangzhou branch of the China Geological Survey, communicated to state media that the survey’s results would “provide valuable services for our country’s marine engineering construction.” The data obtained from the survey is intended to facilitate both the “development and protection” of what the agency terms as “China’s blue land.”

The survey process brought to light 36 previously unmapped seabed features, as reported by state media. Furthermore, it afforded state authorities the opportunity to assign names to 384 seabed landforms scattered across the South China Sea.

The prerogative to name these seabed features aligns with China’s steadfast stance on asserting ownership over the South China Sea. Beijing maintains its claim of “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters,” encompassing legal jurisdiction over the surface, seabed, and subsurface mineral rights.

Apart from civilian applications, the collected data holds military significance. Precise subsea mapping proves crucial in submarine warfare, where a thorough understanding of seabed features is imperative for safe navigation near the ocean floor. Unmapped underwater formations pose collision risks for submarines, and seabed features can be strategically exploited to conceal submarines from detection.

Recent analysis by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) underscores the dual-purpose nature of China’s research vessels, suggesting that they serve not only scientific objectives but also military interests. CSIS contends that more than 80 percent of China’s 64 active research vessels exhibit questionable behavior or have ties indicating involvement in Beijing’s geopolitical agenda. Both the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, operators of research vessels, have entered into cooperation agreements with the Chinese military. The large-scale mapping initiative, sponsored by the China Geological Survey, falls under the purview of the Ministry of Natural Resources, further emphasizing the intersection of scientific and military interests in the region.

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