Literally. On Thursday, China announced that it had sent a small, manned submarine to the floor of the South China Sea and planted a Chinese flag there.
According to Reuters, the sub achieved the feat during one of its 17 dives between May and July, with the craft apparently reaching a depth of more than 12,000 feet — a first for a Chinese submersible vehicle apparently.
Two interesting questions arise. The first is why the government delayed announcing the dives until a month after they were completed? The second question is why it would try such a stunt when tensions in the area are so high.
China was indignant when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a regional security forum in Hanoi last month that the United States had an interest in seeing the various disputes between China and other South-east Asian nations resolved peacefully. China saw this as interference, especially as it has laid claim to most of the South China Sea as a 'core interest' — language that had been reserved for Tibet and Taiwan.
China has preferred to handle these issues bilaterally rather than through regional groupings such as ASEAN, as this allows it to exert greater pressure on individual nations. But if it's concerned by the US inserting itself into the disuputes then it seems a little counter-productive to pull stunts that suggest you have no intention anyway of negotiating in good faith.
Of course by planting the flag, China isn't making any claim it hadn't done already. But it's an insensitive move at a delicate juncture.
I guess it must have seemed like a good idea when it was dreamt up…