When Russia planted a flag on the Arctic Ocean seabed in August 2007, it was in part, political theater meant to cement its claim to the region’s vast natural resources (especially mineral). Of course, such action served as a shot across the bow of the other states bordering the region, leading, among other actions, to a 2008 joint Canadadian-Danish geologic study that supports Canada’s claim to the Lomonosov Ridge as a natural extension of the North American continent and as such, a significant portion of the Arctic seabed. While the five nations with competing claims have agreed to work under UNCLOS through the aegis of the Arctic Council (founded in 1996), there has been an increase in military presence (primarily Russian) in recent months and something of an information campaign as well.

All of this is pretext to an event in the South China Sea that occurred earlier this summer – but only recently announced:

A Chinese submarine planted a national flag deep on the floor of the South China Sea during a test dive last month to reinforce China’s territorial claim, the boat’s designer said yesterday.

The State Oceanic Administration and Ministry of Science and Technology jointly announced yesterday that a Chinese scientific submarine with three civilian crew members had explored unknown terrain at a depth of more than 3,700 metres at the heart of the South China Sea. Before resurfacing, they planted a Chinese flag on the ocean floor.

The motivation of such as pretty clear:

“We were inspired by the Russians, who put a flag on the floor of the North Pole with their MIR [deep sea submarine],” said Zhao, an engineer at the China Ship Scientific Research Centre, who designed the hull of the submarine. “It might provoke some countries, but we’ll be all right. The South China Sea belongs to China. Let’s see who dares to challenge that.”

Brave words indeed from an engineer associated with the project (but one presumes they would not have made it into circulation without the tacit approval of the Chinese government) – but it doesn’t end there. Being as how there was nowhere near the Chinese coast to test the deep sea submersible’s operating depth of up to 7,000 meters (greater than the Russian Mir and similar Western subs, as claimed by the Chinese maker), it was tested close to the Philippines:

“The closer to Philippines, the deeper the sea. We will put down national flags all the way until we reach their border,” Zhao said. “And then we will go beyond and aim for the Mariana Trench.”

Oh yes — and one other “small” item all the way at the end of the article:

The Sea Dragon needs the support of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, according to Zhao. “The navy has escorted all our previous missions and I think they will continue to do so,” he said. “The further we go, the more we need guns to protect ourselves.”

Which itself, brings to mind something we noted in an earlier post

The timing of the announcement and subsequent revelation in the open press (e.g., South China Morning Post – 27 August 2010 (registration/subscription may be required to read)) obviously follows on the heels of China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea. The rub of it is, however, that in so doing their goal of keeping the US marginalized and the other nations bordering the SCS divided becomes harder to obtain. The US has already stated that the competing clams over the resources in the sea and on the seabed of the SCS should be handled in a multi-lateral forum – one thinks something similar to the afore-mentioned Arctic Council, which would be anathema to the Chinese who, ironically enough, have obtained observer status on the Arctic Council. And that item, brings us back to the Arctic where China has asserted a right for access to the mineral wealth on par with the perimeter nations. Giving substance to the claim is a research station established in Norway and deployment of a Russian-built, nuclear-powered icebreaker on a semi-permanent basis.

So, here’s an observation — Russia has laid clam to a vast amount of the Arctic and may well end up with a majority share of said resources. Claim, however, is one thing, the ability to access and exploit another — and the current state of Russian industry and technology to exploit the mineral resources of the region is questionable. The US and Canada have the technological capability, but one wonders about the commitment of the US and the capacity of Canada – which leads us to look at a possible Russo-Chinese joint venture — hard currency for Russia from sales abroad of liquid and mineral resources and guaranteed access to same by a resource hungry China. All without any expectation of China stepping back from its increasingly aggressive posture in the SCS.

…things that make you go, hmmm…

Update; See also Eagle1 and ‘Phib posts this subject as well as this weekend’s blogtalk radio’s coverage of the same.

Posted by SteelJaw in Foreign Policy
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  • Derrick

    So the link is that everybody is fighting for scarce resources underneath the ocean?

    I have a stupid question: since the US navy has probably the most powerful submarine fleet, doesn’t that negate the claims made by other nations putting national flags underneath the sea?

    Placing flags to claim undersea territory is one thing, but one needs the ability to back up their claim (ie subs), correct? So does this mean all the nations with submarines are going to have to sit together and negotiate?

  • Matt Yankee

    China’s position on North Korea should be all we need to know about who they really are. I do not understand why we are willing to allow the DPRK to exist with their proliferation risk. Not only do the Chinese allow DPRK recklessness but they use it against us. Flip that around and provoke the Chinese into acting in defense of the DPRK…if they did dare…and if we have the means to defeat China in conventional manner we would solidify our primary global position for the next 100 yrs.

  • Some discussion of China’s position on the South China Sea and the “Cow’s Tongue” at

  • Derrick

    So the link is China intends to bully its way into control of certain Arctic undersea areas and the South China Sea? I doubt that will get far, given the state of their navy and the resources required to give them a real blue water capability that the US has.

    Perhaps China has an inferiority complex and is trying to acquire access to resources by beating its extremely small stick?

  • Matt Yankee

    I’ve heard that China sees the SCS like the Carribean. Isn’t China involved in developing oil and gas off the coast of Cuba?

  • Derrick

    Also, what are the United Nations policies regarding territorial disputes over undersea land?

  • Chuck Hill

    This reminds me of a line, “What’s mine (SCS) is mine, what’s yours (Arctic) is negotiable.”


    Of course, since virtually every nation is a signature to the UN law of the sea treaty, and in this case the US would probably agree to accept a ruling, why don’t we refer it to the UN Law of the Sea tribunal? They haven’t done much lately (15 total cases in over 20 years, 9 over fishing) and really need the business. Of course, since neither the Russians or the Chinese have a snowballs chance in hell of winning, and thereby no incentive to follow the treaty or request determination by the tribunal, that is probably wishful thinking.

  • Derrick

    I don’t see how the Russians or Chinese have a snowballs chance in hell of winning without UN involvement. In my imagination, anything outside of UN involvement typically means gunboat diplomacy, and guess which navy has the most (and best) gunboats?

    In the worst case scenario, the US could just equip its ships with tactical nuclear weapons (missiles/torpedoes) and that would force everyone to the negotiating table…

  • Chuck Hill

    As always in such things, national will is a multiplier. How important is this to the average “Jay-walker,” compared to the average Chinese?

    The Chinese are preparing the national consciousness for a struggle, we are watching “American Idol.”

  • Derrick

    I don’t see how “national will” will have any effect on the outcome. No country can make any credible claim to an undersea resource without the navy to back it up. Only the US has a navy to back up any type of undersea territorial dispute. Russia’s navy is a fraction of what it once was, and China’s navy is still nothing.

    No matter what, if the Obama Administration decides to get involved, China will have to come to the negotiation table if it wants any chance at all of getting anything.

    Maybe in 30 years when China finally gets enough resources to build up its military, then “national will” will be a multiplier for them, but I have a hard time seeing it helping out now.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Only the US has a navy to back up any type of undersea territorial dispute. Russia’s navy is a fraction of what it once was, and China’s navy is still nothing.”

    The US Navy is a fraction of what it once was, and the Chinese PLAN is growing while ours is shrinking. One day the lines will cross on the chart.

    We had better get rid of the following silly notions:

    China is our friend.

    China has no territorial ambitions worldwide.

    China does not desire regional hegemony.

    China is content to share the world stage as a co-superpower with the US.

    China is a generation behind the US in technology and manufacturing/shipbuilding.

    China sees North Korea as a problem.

    China can be a ‘partner” in maintaining stability in a given region.

    Once we dump those silly and naive notions of China’s intent, we will be far better off. Hope is not a course of action. If we keep that up, we will get change we didn’t bargain for.

  • Derrick

    What examples are there that show China is not a generation behind the US in technology and manufacturing/shipbuilding?

    And does it really matter? I would hope that equipping the US Seventh Fleet with tactical nuclear weapons would make the cost of any territorial ambition unjustifiable. Doesn’t the US 7th fleet already have tactical nuclear weaponry?

    Do you think China would enter into a nuclear conflict with any nation over some undersea territory?

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I would turn the question around. What evidence do you have to say that they are?


    And their major construction has so far been shipYARDS, not the vessels themselves.

  • Matt Yankee

    We are apparently still struggling to understand that there will be NO such thing as a ONE WORLD govt. We should be looking out for US national security even if that means bringing insecurity to other parts of the world. China should be either isolated or defeated. Talk of letting China become the superpower and simply walking away from them and excepting their “Influence” in other countries and seas is simply outragous and could lead to another Pacific Campaign to free conquered territories.

    Call me crazy but I think we should take the oppurtunity of the Cheonan sinking to attack the DPRK and see what China dares to do about it. If they act we will have all the reason in the world to hand them a historical defeat which would signal to the world the true longevity of our global influence.

  • Derrick

    Thanks for the economist link. I’ll search for some more detailed info though, because that article just indicates hull counts.

    In terms of nuclear weapons, which will most likely have to be used in any conflict with China, according to here (http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/china/nuke/index.html) China has a total estimated 145 nuclear warheads. According to this article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons_and_the_United_States),the US has over 5000 nuclear warheads to use.

    Therefore, regardless of how the US views China (either as adversary, ally, or neutral), China will still have no choice but to bend whenever the US so wishes.

  • Matt Yankee

    I’m not sure numerical superiority matters with nukes. How many 50 kiloton weapons could be detonated within 24 hrs-2 wks with little or no ramifications for the rest of the planet? I would say at some point MAD applies. The more likey scenario would be for China to fire up to 6 at a Nimitz carrier at sea over 100 miles offshore. In this case the US would have to respond with limited nukes, maybe, but would have to rely heavily on conventional weapons to limit collateral damage to neighboring countries including allies. AND if China did decide to test this they would do it before missile defense is 100% deployed. Why would China wait for a fully functioning 100% accurate missile defense system from the US to launch an effort against Taiwan or South Korea? If just one carrier was sunk I’m not sure the US would risk a second and I’m sure China thinks about this.

  • Derrick

    To deter the massive numerical advantage China enjoys, about the only way I could see us responding to any Chinese military action would be a nuclear cruise missile strike into Chinese military assets along the coastline. China may get lucky and sink a carrier, but the US will have destroyed Beijing, Shanghai, and essentially cripple China for another 300 years. Doubt the Chinese want that.

    But back on topic: with regards to protecting claims to undersea territories, well, the US still has a powerful and numerically superior submarine force. If US submarines fired nuclear torpedoes at underwater Chinese assets, I doubt anyone but China would complain, because the nuclear explosions would all be underwater.

    Though I would think seafood would become sort of scarce in that region after such a presumed conflict.

  • Chuck Hill

    Derrick, I think your assumption that we would quickly escalate to tac nucs is faulty. Such a move would horrify our allies and our own population as well as the Chinese.

  • Derrick

    Maybe..but I don’t think the Chinese would be so stupid to assume the US would rule out the use of nuclear weapons in any confrontation.

    Why would the US fight on China’s terms? In a conventional conflict, China vastly outnumbers the US. This was the whole reason why nuclear weapons were developed.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You have just made a powerful strategic and foreign policy argument for the very “ambiguity” that our National Command Authority decided to dispense with not long ago.


  • Chuck Hill

    We have no intention of invading China, but when it comes to disputes over islands in the South China Sea, I think we have plenty of conventional options that have a favorable balance against the Chinese capabilities, if we deal with them intelligently. The worry is that they will seize a moment of local superiority, make their move, and it will be Fait Accompli.

    Currently the Chinese seem to be determined to PO (upset) all their neighbors except North Korea. This may lead to an alliance not unlike NATO.

  • Guest469

    Taiwan (as Republic of China) has long claimed the entire SCS. Would our American friends here object to TW enforcing their claim?

    Historically speaking China/TW does actually have the best claim. The problem is can China back it up with teeth.

  • Derrick

    Historical claims are just thrown in to give a claim some “legitimacy”. It historical claims are to be honored, than how far back in history does one go?

    The only real claim to any territory is one that is backed up with economic and military force. In this case, because the disputed region is a sea, one would require money and a blue water navy to enforce their claim. China has neither.

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