China is to build facilities for its deep-sea exploration program in the South China Sea, which some observers believe may also serve a military purpose.
The People’s Daily reported on Thursday that the southernmost port city of Sanya on the South China Sea in Hainan province would host the research base with completion of construction by 2019.
At an estimated cost of 560 million yuan (US$85.6 million), the base, to be operated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, will have the capacity to accommodate and service five to seven research vessels and manned and unmanned submersibles.
Among those submersibles rumored to move to their new home port of Sanya are the Deep Sea Warrior, able to carry a crew of four and descend to 4,500 meters below sea level. The average depth of the South China Sea is 1,212 meters.
Another autonomous underwater vehicle, Qianlong-2, is also capable of diving to 4,500 meters below the surface.
China now has only one deep-sea exploration base in the northern coastal city of Qingdao, meaning an arduous journey for vessels and submersibles heading for the South China Sea or even the Indian Ocean.
“The marked strides of Chinese submersibles as they dive deeper and deeper in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean is also an indicator of the Chinese Navy’s blue-water capabilities, and for sure Beijing is not splashing out hefty money on these manned and unmanned underwater vehicles to just collect some coral samples from the bottom of the vast waters,” said one commentary on the Kanwa defense forum.
The proposed Sanya facility for Chinese submersibles is not far from an existing submarine base.
The fortification of the strategically-located Sanya as a logistic port for Chinese airmen and marines deployed across the South China Sea, on atolls and artificial islands, are all sources of concern to many in the region.
Analysts believe the Chinese submersibles can also work in tandem with People’s Liberation Army submarines and warships in patrols to monitor activities of foreign navies when vessels from other nations sail into the sea on freedom-of-navigation missions.
One lead designer of the Qianlong submersibles said in a China Central Television program last year that surveillance cameras and sonar could be mounted on the undersea vehicles, which would be ideal to detect and observe marine life and other activities at great depths beneath the surface.