Recently, China’s Jiaolong manned submersible became the world’s deepest-diving state-sponsored research vessel, with four trips to 7,000 meters depth. Around the same time, news broke of plans for a National Deep Sea Center, a $78 million facility that will operate the sea-going fleet and serve as a central base for oceanographic research and technology development. Months later, the center’s director, Liu Baohua, announced a nationwide search for oceanauts, men and women who will pilot Jiaolong and its planned sister sub around the ocean’s depths.
It’s all part of China’s rhetorical, financial, and strategic return to the sea, a realm that it dominated several centuries ago. Chinese maritime strength reached its apex in the early 15th century, as admiral Zheng He crisscrossed the Indian Ocean with enormous fleets, returning with gifts (most famously a giraffe) for the Emperor. But a few years later, as political winds shifted, the Ming Dynasty ended the epic voyages, choosing instead to focus on other, more local, priorities. This abrupt 180 is frequently cited as a cautionary tale highlighting the dangers of isolationism, a poor strategic move that doomed the discoverers to become the discovered.
So why the resurgence in sea-based activity? Dean Cheng is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and an expert on China’s technological ambitions. He points to the innocuously named “863 Program” as an underappreciated game changer that reconfigured the country’s relationship with technology across a number of disciplines.
In March of 1986 (hence the “863” title), four prominent engineers wrote to then-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, warning of impending doom for civil society’s scientific institutions. A long-standing focus on military might had neglected other aims of technological development, and if China didn’t redistribute its resources soon, it would be fated to watch the “new technological revolution” from the outside.
Xiaoping took the argument to heart, initiating research and exploration programs focused on seven key fields: biotechnology, space, information technology, lasers, automation, energy, and materials science.
Marine Technology was added to the roster in 1996, well coordinated with the country’s broadening regional influence and growing appetite for sea-based resources. “China has become much more dependent on the oceans and ocean-based trade for food and commerce,” notes Cheng. “They’d also like to know what’s off the coast; there are vast unexplored swaths of their seabed as well as deeper ocean reaches that could prove useful.”
And while Plan 863 indicates a formal commitment to oceanographic exploration, China’s movement has been measured and deliberate, similar to its spacefaring progress. With all the fanfare surrounding the country’s entry into manned spaceflight, it’s important to maintain historical perspective. In the decade since it became the third country to put a man in space, China has completed four flights; the bulk of the Space Race, from Gagarin to Armstrong, happened in less time.
It seems likely, then, that the oceanaut program will be a slow burning initiative, the leading edge of a larger oceanic strategy. Going forward, China will continue to consolidate its strategic interests and look to secure access to resources, whether in the form of deep ocean minerals or coastal fish. As Cheng explains, “there are relatively few sudden interests in Chinese politics. The broader set of research areas tend to be methodical in the development process – it’s been true for outer space and it’s true for inner space too.”