China is looking in the disputed South China Sea area for “flammable ice.”
Beijing is searching for ‘flammable ice’ in the South China Sea
The substance, methane hydrate, is so named for its crystalline appearance. It is an alternative source of energy to oil and gas reserves.
The country’s minerals research agency said Wednesday that two of China’s newest and most-advanced underwater vessels were deployed in an area of the sea for a three-day research mission.
It was the first large-scale deep water research using the country’s homegrown submersibles, the Seahorse and the manned Shenhai Yongshi (or “deep sea warrior”), said the agency, the China Geological Survey.
Seabed reserves of the hydrate could be a crucial new energy source for China, which imports the majority of its energy.
It is also a cleaner energy resource than coal – even though extracting it carries the risk of leaking methane, a major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
The site explored by the vessels is located west of the Pearl River mouth basin in the South China Sea. It’s where China first found the substance in 2015.
China’s territorial claims to most of the strategically valuable South China Sea overlap with those of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said China was trying to make use of its technology to get the upper hand in resource exploration over its rivals in the region.
“More pertinently, these activities are broadly also interpreted as part of the larger schema of Beijing’s quest to dominate the South China Sea,” he said.
On Wednesday, China was said to have installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its outposts in the disputed waters, according to a CNBC report.
China has claimed that it has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, where the missile deployment was reported, and that its activities there are for national security needs.
“Those who do not intend to be aggressive have no need to be worried or scared,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing on Thursday, according to Reuters.
During the three-day expedition which started on April 28, the Seahorse unmanned vehicle took samples from the ocean floor area, or cold seep, with methane drillers and detectors, and also used sonar and scanning equipment, the China Geological Survey said.
China’s newest manned submersible, Shenhai Yongshi, meanwhile mapped out the distribution of the cold seep and the area’s geography, the agency said.
The explored area’s depth ranges from 1,350 to 1,430m (4,400-4,700ft). Both submersibles can dive to a depth of 4,500m (about 14,700ft).
“We have found that there are a lot of methane bubbles in this South China Sea area,” Chen Zongheng, a researcher with the China Geological Survey, was quoted as saying by state broadcaster CCTV.
The country has been actively developing its drilling techniques to get access to some of the world’s most promising oil and gas deposits in the resource-rich waterway.
As well as marine scientific research, Beijing has also been beefing up its naval and coast guard presence in the contested waters, and building artificial islands.