Chinese research ship on maiden voyage to South China Sea amid distrust by neighbors

Laura Zhou, South China Morning Post

Posted at Sep 07 2021 01:23 PM

One of China’s most advanced new research ships has headed to the South China Sea on its maiden voyage as Beijing boosts exploration in the resource-rich waters despite distrust by its neighbours.

The Shiyan 6, or Experiment 6, geophysical and seismic survey ship left a port in Guangzhou on Monday for “key scientific tasks” in the estuary of the Pearl River in Guangdong province and the northern part of the South China Sea, state-owned Science and Technology Daily reported.

Scientists and researchers, led by Du Yan of the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, would study hydrodynamics, material transport and ecological response processes in the waters near the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area and the nearby Pearl River run-off, state-owned broadcaster CGTN reported.

Construction started on the Shiyan 6 in November 2018 and the vessel is now reported to be the most advanced medium-sized research ship in China, its on-board laboratories allowing researchers to process and analyse samples and send data to colleagues on land via satellite.

Hailed as “the main force in China’s scientific research fleet in the South China Sea and its adjacent waters”, the launch of the ship would improve China’s capacity to develop marine resources, oil, gas, minerals and biogenetic resources to safeguard national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, CGTN reported.

With a total investment of 500 million yuan (US$77 million), the vessel can carry a crew of up to 60, has a displacement of 3,990 tonnes and can spend up to 60 days at sea, covering some 12,000 nautical miles.

It can also carry out research offshore and in waters near small islands and reefs in the South China Sea and can be used to collect data on topography, landforms, currents, and biomes in extreme environments such as deep trenches.

Since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, Beijing has invested heavily in maritime research as part of efforts to achieve a “great rejuvenation” of the country.

In March, a company affiliated with China Shipbuilding Group announced it had sealed an agreement with the Guangdong Institute of Intelligent Unmanned System to build a research vessel the would be “China’s most powerful integrated marine scientific research vessel”.

In July, China said it had started construction of an that would carry drones and be equipped to conduct air, sea surface and underwater monitoring remotely, which China Ship News said would be a “game changer for marine survey work”.

While Beijing insists that such research will be used for public good, its maritime research activities have been greeted with suspicion from its South China Sea neighbours. China’s claims in 90 per cent of the waters have been contested by Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

In June, when China announced that its newest and biggest research vessel, the Sun Yat-sen University, would sail to the Paracel Islands – known as Xisha in China and Hoang Sa in Vietnam – in October to study currents as part of disaster prevention research.

The Vietnamese foreign ministry protested, saying any scientific research activities in the disputed waters without Vietnam’s permission were illegal.

Tensions over China’s survey activities grew in 2019 when one of its research ships, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, was sent into waters near the Vietnamese-controlled Vanguard Bank in the Spratly Islands – known in China as the Nansha Islands – in the South China Sea, triggering a months-long stand-off between the coastguards of China and Vietnam.

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