As Southeast Asian nations look ahead to 2019, competition for control of the South China Sea looms large on the horizon. That strategic contest could enter a new destabilizing phase if China introduces as reported a new Atlantis-like deep-sea submarine base in the already volatile maritime area.

The proposed new base, which could in theory be operated 24/7 through usage of cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) technology, would dramatically bolster China’s quest for superiority in a largely unseen underwater struggle for one of the world’s most important waterways.

If implemented as envisioned in recent news reports, the futuristic underwater submarine base would potentially place the Asian powerhouse in a position to dominate the waters, skies, and underwater continental shelves in a maritime region through which trillions of dollars of trade travels annually.

One reported candidate location for the proposed base is the Manila Trench, which reaches a depth of about 5,400 meters and is known to be pervaded by negative gravity anomalies. It is also associated with frequent earthquakes and a subduction zone responsible for the belt of volcanoes on the Philippine island of Luzon.

The ambitious project was launched in early December by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, according to media reports. The announcement came shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the deep-sea research institute at Sanya, Hainan, which currently serves as the site of China’s southernmost submarine base.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018. Picture: Li Gang/ Xinhua via Reuters
Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018. Picture: Li Gang/ Xinhua via Reuters

During the publicized visit, Xi implored Chinese scholars to be daring and unrelenting in pushing the boundaries of science and geo-engineering beyond the achievements of any other country. “There is no road in the deep sea, we do not need to chase [after other nations], we are the road,” Xi said during his visit to Hainan.

To put the ambitious project’s scale into perspective, the planned base would conceivably be put in the deepest part of the ocean basin, which is typically a V-shape area with an estimated depth of 6,000 to 11,000 meters. The Manila Trench, analysts note, potentially fits this geological requirement; the South China Sea’s average depth is only 1,500 meters.

The base’s estimated initial cost is only around US$160 million, or about half of what China spent on developing the world’s largest telescope, the FAST radio telescope in southwestern province of Guizhou, according to reports. Given the intricate and unprecedented nature of the proposed underwater base, the final cost is expected to be several times higher.

As one scientist involved in the recently launched project told the South China Morning Post, “It is as challenging as building a colony on another planet for robotic residents with artificial intelligence.” He said it will require the kind of technology which “can change the world.” Another Chinese scientist described the project as “more difficult than building a space station. No other country has done this before.”

China has tried to portray the project as an innocuous scientific endeavor, which will provide vital public international goods. China has similarly characterized other structures, including meteorological observatories, environmental and air quality monitoring stations and marine observation centers, it has built on contested land features in the South China Sea’s Spratly chain of islands.

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Through the deployment of AI-driven autonomous submarines, the country will be able to survey, study and record life forms on the ocean seabed, setting the stage for potential exploitation of precious and previously untapped resources that could have medicinal and technological benefits, Chinese officials have said. The submarine base will be powered through cables connected to a nearby ship or platform.

Yet there are doubts about China’s true intentions. In particular, there are worries about the potential dual-use applications of such a facility, which if built would give Beijing even greater ability to crowd out and encircle other claimant states in the South China Sea. China aims to deploy AI-driven unmanned submarines that could potentially be used in suicide attacks against enemy vessels by 2020, according to reports.

Since 2013, China has embarked on an unprecedented reclamation project which has dramatically changed the geology of the South China Sea. This has been followed by its militarization of the maritime features it controls, seen in last year’s deployment of surface-to-air-missiles and other advanced military assets to its artificially built islands.

Building a submarine base at the bosom of the disputed waters would mark a new phase in China’s quest for domination of the waters, strategic analysts say. Indeed, there are already indications that the competition for control of the South China Sea is shifting to deep-water theaters, where the potential for miscalculations, including vis-a-vis US naval vessels, will rise.

With the possible exception of Vietnam, which recently acquired several kilo-class submarines from Russia, no other regional claimant state is in a position to credibly track and deter China’s undersea activities in the South China Sea.

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Conceptual image of an artificial intelligence-driven Chinese submarine. Image: Facebook

Xi’s ambitious plan for an Atlantis-like submarine base in the maritime area likely builds on the vision of the founder of China’s modern navy, Admiral Liu Huaqing. In the 1980s, Liu envisioned Beijing’s strategic dominance of adjacent waters (“first island chain”) as well as the Western Pacific (“second island chain”) within the first two decades of the 21st century.

The Chinese admiral viewed the maritime zone as China’s natural backyard, a crucial buffer zone to protect the country’s economic centers in the south as well as a critical step towards full encirclement and eventual incorporation of Taiwan into China. Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province rather than independent nation.

With the launch of its “boomer-type” submarines in 2014, now known to be roaming the Indian and Pacific oceans, China made its way into the exclusive club of powers – along with the US and Russia – that have the capability to launch nuclear missiles from air, sea and underwater.

China’s boomer-type nuclear submarines could be stationed at the planned Atlantis-like submarine base, giving China the ability to gradually push out and intimidate the US and its allies operating in the area, some analysts project.

As the South China Sea battle for supremacy moves from the surface to underwater, smaller Southeast Asian claimants will increasingly find themselves at the strategic mercy of great powers with superior deep-sea capabilities – and potentially even AI-driven underwater bases.