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China Hits Bottom, Plants Flag

The People's Republic of China has joined an elect group of four countries that have taken men as deep as 3,500 meters below the surface of the ocean. And in keeping with Chinese claims to huge amounts of the ocean surface and its depths, the crew planted a flag on the bottom in the South China Sea, much as Russia recently did in Arctic waters.

The story was reported on Chinese TV news and by the official Xinhua news service, making it almost certain that the event had policy repercussions, in addition to the nicely nationalistic side of the submersible crew and the craft's designer having done something physically and technically challenging.

The flag planting was done with a submersible, not a submarine. Subs are independent and can go pretty much wherever they like. Submersibles, which are usually designed to go deeper and possess grappling arms of some type, usually are deployed from a mother ship and possess limited range. The Chinese submersible, Jiaolong, executed 17 dives in the South China Sea from May 31 to July 18. The deepest dive took them to 3,759 meters.

The flag planting, "highlights (again!) that China has laid claim to the South China Sea," said Dean Cheng, the top Chinese defense expert at the Heritage Foundation here in Washington. Islands and reefs in the South China Sea are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. My personal favorite clump of islands is those known as the Spratlys, where people have died over tiny lumps of coral so small it’s impossible to build permanent structures on them. The Spratlys may lie atop oil and gas deposits and they describe rich fishing areas.

At the end of last month a Defense Ministry spokesman said "China has indisputable sovereignty” of the South China Sea, though he allowed that the PRC would allow ship and aircraft passage “from relevant countries” if they comply with China’s interpretation of international law.

Cheng pointed to the fact that the Jiaolong was manned, saying China's ability to operate at such depths will have economic and military repercussions as they undertake operations such as deep sea oil drilling and labor to supplement Ch8inese research into oceanography, a key discipline for submarine operations.

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