Archaeology and the South China Sea

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

Archaeology and the South China Sea

A new maritime archaeology vessel is another component in China’s strategy for the South China Sea.

Archaeology and the South China Sea

A general view of a building and a pier on Da Tay island in the Spratly archipelago January 6, 2013.

Credit: REUTERS/Quang Le

Recently, Vietnamese and Western media resumed reporting on China’s HD-981 oil rig, after it was redeployed to disputed waters, dredging up memories of the intense anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and the diplomatic standoff that occurred last year when the rig was moved to waters between Vietnam and China for the first time. The HD-981 oil rig gives China a mobile, economic platform from which to project its sovereignty in disputed waters, but what about a cultural-historical platform? Well, “they have a ship for that,” too, and its recent deployment in the Paracel Island chain went relatively unnoticed. The vessel in question is China’s first domestically designed and developed archaeological ship, and its deployment reflects China’s ability to rapidly introduce dedicated ships for virtually every function it desires.

In 2014, China officially launched its first archaeological vessel, the 950-ton, 56 meter-long Kaogu-01. Originally commissioned by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) in 2012, primary construction on Kaogu-01 was completed by Chongqing Dongfeng Shipbuilding Corporation on January 24, 2014 at a total end cost of around 80 million yuan ($12.9 million). According to the Chongqing Youth Daily, the deployment of this ship marks the end of Chinese maritime archaeologists conducting their research from rented fishing vessels.

The ship’s high price tag is reflected in its facilities and tools, which are sufficiently plentiful and advanced for the local news in Qingdao to describe Kaogu-01 as “armed to the teeth.” The ship boasts an A-frame crane capable of hoisting up to 3 tons, a folding arm crane that can extend up to 6 meters past the edge of the ship, a dive workroom, a decompression chamber, an “air-lock chamber for excavated cultural relics,” and two food storage rooms. Some reports even claim that it boasts a submersible to facilitate underwater searches.

While it remains unclear which submersible, if any, Kaogu-01 might be equipped with, China’s deep-water submersible technology is quite advanced. In 2010, China became only the fifth country, after Russia, France, Japan, and the United States, to have a manned submersible capable of descending past the 1,000 meter mark. In 2012, China’s Jiaolong-01 7,000 meter manned submersible underwent its second round of tests, descending to a depth of 6,000 meters over 10 hours. China has also used submersible to execute underwater archaeological tasks in the past, using the Osprey-01 four-man submersible to explore underwater ruins in Fuxian Lake, Yuxi City, Yunnan Province in 2001.

Kaogu-01 is powered by an electric motor capable of reaching speeds up to 12 knots. In addition, the ship can carry supplies sufficient for up to 30 days’ continuous operation. To increase stability and thereby minimize strain on the crew, the ship’s center of gravity has been lowered. It also sports an “anti-rolling tank” that can be adjusted to allow the ship to withstand winds of up to 75 km/h and waves up to 5.5 meters high, up to 8 on the Beaufort scale.

Kaogu-01’s first opportunity to use these facilities came during its first deployment,  shortly after the ship’s maiden voyage ceremony in Qingdao last September, when it sailed to Dongkengtuo shipwreck about 48 kilometers off the coast of Tangshan, Shandong province, to conduct archaeological tests. On April 13 this year, Kaogu-01 began its second large-scale mission, departing Wenchang City in Hainan Province on a 45-day expedition to Shanhu (Pattle) Island in the Paracels, the site of a naval battle in the 1974 conflict between China and South Vietnam over the islands and still contested by Vietnam. The relative quiet from Vietnam compared with the commotion that accompanied the oil rig last year at first seems strange, but could stem from Vietnam prioritizing among its concerns, particularly given the usually less-politicized nature of maritime archaeology. However, things may be heating up even here as China rapidly develops its maritime archaeology industry.

Maritime Archaeology Boom

Kaogu-01 represents the latest big step in what has been a rather active decade for Chinese domestic maritime archaeology, a field that has developed rapidly since its beginnings in China around 1987 with the establishment of the Center for Underwater Archaeology at the present-day National Museum of China in Beijing. Two years later, China conducted its first underwater archaeological survey. Since then, more than a dozen shipwrecks have been excavated, and a large number of other potential sites have been identified.

Before this latest trip to Shanhu Island, China’s carried out large-scale underwater archaeological excavations at Sandaogang shipwreck off of Liaoning Province from 1992-97, Wanjiao-01 and Daliandao shipwrecks off Fujian province in 2005 and 2007,  Huaguangjiao (Discovery Reef) in the Paracels in 2007 and 2008, and Nan’ao-01 shipwreck off the coast of Guangdong province between 2010 and 2012. In addition, the Nanhai-01 shipwreck, found off the coast of Guangdong province in 1987, was moved to a specially constructed museum in 2007, where it continued to undergo excavations in 2009.

All of these shipwrecks contained numerous porcelain specimens in their holds, such as plates, bowls, and cups. According to analysis of their cargoes, most were bound for Southeast Asia, with the exception being the Sandaogang shipwreck, which was supposedly bound for Korea. These wrecks provide much evidence for examining maritime trade between China and others in the region, which appeared to thrive during most of China’s history. In Japan, Chinese junks became revered by urban merchants in the 18th century as talismans of abundant trade.

Amid this rapid growth in maritime archaeology, China’s SACH founded the China Center of Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection (CCUCHP) in 2009. Since its founding, CCUCHP has been working with other departments, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Transport, and the State Oceanic Administration, to create a “National Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection Team,” which has coordinated missions and other tasks such as symposiums, meetings, and research.

In addition, a regional underwater archaeological research and preservation center has been established in Jinan, Shandong province. Perhaps most interesting, however, are two constructions in the South China Sea area currently being planned. The first is a National Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection South China Sea Base, the feasibility report for which was recently approved by the State Development and Reform Commission. This base, likely to be located in Lingshui County, Hainan, aims to centralize all South China Sea cultural heritage investigations, training, and research under one national-level organization. The second is the planned construction of a Paracel Islands Underwater Archaeology Work Station on Yongxing* (Woody) Island in the Paracels.

China’s archaeological work in disputed islands also extends to the Spratly Island chain, which it disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. China has identified roughly 200 different underwater “cultural heritage sites” between the Spratlys and the Paracels, and has been conducting archaeological explorations in the Spratlys since at least 2013.

Maritime archaeology seems like an innocuous enough field. Yet Kaogu-01’s deployment close to the site of a battle between China and Vietnam in an island chain still claimed by the latter, as well as ongoing archaeological work in the disputed Spratly Island chain, indicate that China may see a secondary, political purpose in expanding its maritime archaeological industry, namely strengthening China’s claims to disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Hunting for Buried Sovereignty

China’s current claims in the South China Sea revolve around its nine-dash line, encircling both the Paracel and Spratly Island chains, which are also claimed by several of China’s neighbors. In addition, this line comes into direct conflict with several exclusive economic zones (EEZs) claimed by China’s neighbors under UNCLOS. China’s dispute with the Philippines is currently the subject of international litigation at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, although China does not recognize the court’s legal authority and is, therefore, not participating. However, despite not recognizing the authority of the Permanent Court of Arbitration to which the Philippines submitted the case, China nevertheless submitted a position paper to the court explaining why it believes the court holds no jurisdiction and briefly stating China’s justification for its claims.

In this position paper, China outlines that its claims are based on historical right, asserting that China was the first to discover, name, explore, and exploit the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which it calls the Xisha and the Nansha respectively. Like the shape of China’s new “Maritime Silk Road,” this is based heavily on China’s history.

News outlets, both official and unofficial, have made direct connections between Chinese efforts in maritime archaeology and the protection of maritime rights in the South China Sea, including in a 2014 National Cultural News report, which stated that maritime archaeology and the protection of China’s maritime history have become important tools in defending China’s maritime rights and sovereignty, directly alluding to the “complicated” rights disputes that the PRC currently faces with its neighbors.

At SACH’s February 2014 CCUCHP Annual Meeting, another direct link was made between the Nan’ao-1 shipwreck site off Hainan’s coast, archaeological work in the Spratlys, and protecting national sovereignty. The meeting outlined several goals of these two projects, including filling in the gaps in China’s maritime archaeological academia, supplementing and confirming China’s ancient and Republican era historical records, providing a legal and historical basis for China’s rights in the South China Sea, and expressing Chinese sovereignty in order to protect its cultural heritage.

The officials directly involved with the projects have also been vocal about how maritime archaeology assists in the protection of national rights. Jiang Bo, Director of the Institute of Underwater Archaeology in the Center of Underwater Cultural Heritage Protection, drew a connection between current expeditions and the Maritime Silk Road. In addition, at Kaogu-01’s maiden voyage ceremony in Qingdao, Li Xiaojie, Director of the SACH and Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Culture, said that maritime archaeology plays an irreplaceable part in preserving China’s national culture and protecting its maritime rights.

What is implied in these statements is that China plans to use underwater archaeology as a way to strengthen its historical claims within the nine-dash line in the South China Sea. Looking for historical remains, though, is not China’s only means of asserting its sovereignty over the South China Sea through maritime archaeology. Chinese maritime forces are also enforcing Chinese laws regarding the protection of underwater cultural sites by chasing away “unauthorized” investigations in China’s claimed waters.

Active Protection and Demonstrating Sovereignty

Chinese laws regarding underwater cultural sites, such as shipwrecks or other sunken structures are laid out in the “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China Concerning the Administration of the Protection of Underwater Cultural Relics.” In these provisions, China casts an expansive net. It lays claim to all “relics of Chinese origin” outside the territorial waters of another state, all relics of Chinese “or of unidentified origin” that remain in the sea outside China’s territorial waters and yet inside its administrated waters, and all cultural relics that remain inside Chinese territorial waters. Chinese law also does not allow for private enterprises to conduct excavation, exploration, or salvage work on shipwrecks.

In 2013, China enforced those claims on an unsuspecting French archaeologist and his team investigating the wreck of a Chinese junk off the Philippine coast. According to one report, a Chinese twin-prop plane flew overhead. Then a Chinese marine-surveillance vessel approached the Philippines-registered ship, issuing instructions in English to turn around and head back. While it is difficult to say where exactly this incident actually happened, it does go to show that China is both willing and able to use force to enforce its sovereignty claims over shipwrecks and other relics in disputed waters.

China has also turned to the use of passive technology to protect its cultural relics. According to Yu Xingguang, Director of the State Oceanic Administrations Number 3 Research Facility, China has finished developing the technology for monitoring buoys, which employ acoustics technology to survey underwater wrecks and monitor their condition, while also simultaneously using China’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) to identify and monitor ships entering and exiting the area of wrecks in real time.

Enforcing its sovereignty claims off the Philippines is one obvious way that China is using maritime archaeology to assert and protect its sovereignty. Another method apparently used is much more subtle. It involves the use of China’s new ship, Kaogu-01, in disputed areas to assert its control over them, as well as the gradual buildup of work stations and bases in the area, such as the one planned for Yongxing Island.

Based on its current location, Kaogu-01 appears to already be fitting well into this approach, itself part of the latest wave of what some term China’s “creeping assertiveness” over the past few decades. China seems to remain content to slowly, incrementally further its claims by changing facts on the ground while maintaining a willingness to engage diplomatically with other disputants. This strategy was successful in helping China to consolidate physical control over the Paracel Islands in the 1970s, and is currently helping it to further its claims in the Spratlys. Li Xiaojie’s declaration in February 2015 that Kaogu-01’s principal area of operations will be “China’s coast, including the Paracel Islands” indicates that, for now, Kaogu-01 may be limited to enhancing China’s extant claims. However, media speculation surrounding Kaogu-01’s launch suggesting that the ship was bound for the Spratlys hints that it could become another version of the mobile oil rig, deploying to disputed areas in an attempt to assert China’s claims.

While it remains premature to say how effective the deployment of Kaogu-01 to disputed waters may be in bolstering Beijing’s specific positioning vis-à-vis the South China Sea, China is clearly digging deep for evidence to support its claims. The use of the archaeological ship to search for evidence supporting China’s claims is certain to play a substantive part in China’s overall approach there – a comprehensive effort that smaller neighbors, even combined, simply cannot match. The results of these excavations and any evidence of China’s presence “since ancient times” are likely to be heavily publicized by Chinese media in the future. Stay tuned for further elaboration of Chinese historical claims!

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. Kevin Bond is a research intern at the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College. He received his M.A. from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies and his bachelor of arts degree from Gettysburg College.

*Spelling corrected