19 July 2015

Trolling for History from China’s New Purpose-Built Ship: Archaeology and the South China Sea

Andrew S. Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Archaeology and the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, 20 July 2015.

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

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. …