By Drake Long
China’s recent establishment of two new research stations on artificial islands it occupies in the disputed South China Sea comes as it ramps up its exploration and exploitation of deep sea environments, seeking fuel, rare metals and biotechnology, analysts said.
The two research stations at the Chinese-built artificial islands at Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef were declared operational in Chinese state media last month. They are under the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Integrated Research Center for Reefs and Islands, which was set up at another Chinese base in the region, Mischief Reef, in late 2018.
Official announcements describe their purpose as the study of a wide range of marine sciences, including the ecology, geology, environment, and mineral, and energy resources of the South China Sea.
The idea of scientific research sounds benign enough, but China’s activities are eyed with suspicion by other claimants in the region’s resource-rich waters – particularly by Vietnam.
There’s been scant progress in resolving the long-standing territorial disputes among the six claimants in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, and slow-moving talks on a Code of Conduct has yet to be finalized since negotiations started in 2016.
“All activities on the Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands must receive Vietnam’s approval,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said on March 26 in Hanoi, about a week after China announced the research facilities at Fiery Cross and Subi Reef. “Vietnam asks that China respects its sovereignty and refrain from actions which could escalate tensions.”
The United States chimed in on Monday, accusing China of “exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among its complaints about Chinese actions, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus Beijing cited the new research stations.
China stirred international outrage when it constructed its seven artificial islands in the South China Sea between 2013 and 2015 – not only because it was setting up airstrips and military facilities in contested territory, but because of the widespread environmental destruction that ensued. Massive amounts of coral reefs that the islands were built on were irreparably destroyed.
And now it appears China wants to cultivate – or harvest – what lies beneath the sea.
The organization that oversees all three of China’s research stations in the area – the South China Sea Innovation Institute for Ecological and Environmental Engineering – states that its mission is “keeping a foothold in those islands and reefs; deep plowing the South China Sea’s islands and reefs.”
Rising stakes for deep-sea research
The stakes for deep sea research have raised over the past decade, as everything from genetic material derived from biological organisms to critical components for advanced technology have been found in deep sea environments.
“There are only a handful of medicines that have been derived from marine compounds, but a lot of money is put into marine bioprospecting. The number of registered patents is increasing exponentially,” said Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, a researcher and PhD candidate with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Jouffray pointed out one recent biomedicine breakthrough: microbes found on the seabed are partially responsible for the development of covid-19 test kits.
The biodiversity of the South China Sea’s seabed in particular makes it attractive for this kind of research.
Cindy Lee Van Dover, the Harvey W. Smith Professor of Biological Oceanography at Duke University, called it “an exciting natural laboratory for a variety of ecological studies,” citing its abundance of seeps, hydrothermal vents, soft sediment, and more that could host new species of microorganisms.
However, deep sea exploration has also focused on minerals and new sources of energy.
“The ocean floor also contains vast quantities of methane hydrates,” said Jouffray, “which are estimated to represent twice as much organic carbon as the world’s coal, oil and other forms of natural gas combined.”
He called the offshore oil and gas sector the biggest ocean-based industry by far, and the potential of methane hydrates have spurred a lot of trials on how seeking to profitably extract them profitably.
China broke the world record for extracting natural gas from methane hydrates on March 26, according to its Ministry of Natural Resources. Still, Jouffray said the field is in an experimental phase, citing the risks associated with it.
Also called “flammable ice,” methane hydrate pockets are highly sensitive to pressure and can’t be moved to the surface. That hasn’t stopped countries including China and Japan from extracting it straight from the ocean floor.
Precious metals and rare earth minerals
The seabed is also potentially rich in precious metals and rare earth minerals, according to both Jouffray and Van Dover.
“From a scientist’s perspective, the South China Sea looks very interesting. Polymetallic nodules and crusts of the SCS are studied by Chinese scholars, including geochemists, geophysicists, and microbiologists,” Van Dover said.
The polymetallic nodules Van Dover mentioned are potential sources of rare metals, including manganese and cobalt, clustered on the seabed that could be used for key advanced technologies such as electric car batteries and smartphone components. Previously inaccessible and difficult to find, modern technology has made it possible to prospect the seabed for these minerals that were previously inaccessible.
In October 2019, the general secretary of the International Seabed Authority, the U.N. body responsible for regulating use of the seabed, expressed his belief that China, already ahead of other countries in prospecting the seabed, would be the first country to commercially exploit it, as reported by Reuters.
The parent organization of China’s South China Sea Innovation Institute for Ecological and Environmental Engineering has published methods on how to explore for these nodules, and China has undertaken several underwater expeditions solely for the purpose of finding nodules under the South China Sea, Xinhua news agency has reported.
But Jouffray said large-scale mining of those minerals for profit is far off.
“Deep sea mining is nowhere close to commercial scale exploitation. For the simple reason there is no regulation in place yet,” he said.
The International Seabed Authority is drafting a comprehensive mining code for prospectors and other companies interested in seabed resources.
However, the prospects of deep sea mining have been met with alarm over the potential environmental destruction of deep sea environments. Deep sea ecosystems are famously fragile, and seabed prospecting tests done completed in a stretch of the southeastern Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico in 1989 have caused irreversible damage, visible even 30 years later.
The ISA has drafted recommendations on how to study the environmental impact of mining exploration, but none on extraction. One issue with energy and mineral extraction in particular is the extreme fragility of the undersea environments on and around those resources.
For example, certain animals like the scaly-foot snail are found at only three separate underwater environments on earth, and the ISA issued prospecting licenses for two of those areas. Shortly thereafter the snail was placed on the list of threatened species. Countless other organisms and environments haven’t even been discovered yet.
“There are these remote ecosystems where we don’t know what we would lose if exploitation was about to proceed,” Jouffray said. He said deep sea environments and the organisms living in them won’t adapt easily to any human interaction, and may not recover from damage. “Those are reasons to be cautionary when considering commercial exploitation.”
Each country sets its own standards for assessing the environmental impact of any research. While the Chinese Academy of Sciences claims its new research centers are concerned with environmental protection and sustainability, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, where they are built, are known to have had their natural coral ecosystems destroyed by China’s artificial island building campaign.