China’s biggest research ship to head to South China Sea on maiden voyage

·3-min read

China’s newest and biggest research vessel is expected to make its maiden voyage to the South China Sea in October as part of Beijing’s efforts to boost exploration in the resource-rich waters.

The vessel was manufactured by Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard, builder of China’s second and third aircraft carriers and was handed over to researchers at Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University, after which it is named, in a ceremony in Shanghai last month.

Professor Yu Weidong, from the university’s school of atmospheric sciences, told the Yangcheng Evening News that the vessel would sail to the Paracel Islands in October to study “the steam of the western boundaries of the South China Sea as well as its neighbouring waters … that could provide scientific support for disaster prevention”.

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The South China Sea is the main source of moisture for the rain that falls in southern China and every year super typhoons from the waters severely damage ecosystems in China.

Yu said the research would address areas such as the oceanic atmosphere, the seabed, marine biology and archaeology. The vessel has been dubbed “a mega mobile lab on the sea”, according to China Ship News. It is 114.3 metres long (374 feet long) and 19.4 metres wide, and weighs 6,880 tonnes (7,580 tons).

On board, 760 square metres (8,200 square feet) are reserved for fixed laboratories and over 610 square metres are allocated for more than 10 container-style mobile labs, allowing researchers to collect samples at sea and analyse them on board, before transferring the data to land.

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A helicopter deck would be used to transfer people and equipment, and enable drones to extend the scientific observation range in the air, on the sea surface and the sea floor, the report said, adding that a phased array weather radar would be set up on the vessel next year.

Speaking at the handover ceremony in Shanghai, Chen Chunsheng, the university’s Communist Party secretary, said the launch of the vessel could “provide strong support for solid progress in serving major national strategies”.

Since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, Beijing has invested heavily in marine research to help achieve the “great rejuvenation” of the country.

In March, Beijing announced that a 10,100-tonne research vessel was under construction in Guangdong. Once completed it will be “China’s most powerful integrated marine scientific research vessel”.

While Beijing insists that such research will be used for public good, China’s 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.

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Beijing’s control of the Paracel Islands, a group of 30 islands in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam, are also contested by Hanoi and Taipei. China calls them the Xisha Islands, and Vietnam the Hoang Sa Islands.

In 2019, the Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 triggered a months-long stand-off between the coastguards of China and Vietnam after it sailed into waters near the Vietnamese-controlled Vanguard Bank in the Spratly Islands – known by China as the Nansha Islands – in the South China Sea.

Hanoi accused the vessel of blocking its oil exploration project while Beijing said the ship was conducting a seismic survey.

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