In March 2022, China began its archaeological excavation of the shipwreck known as ‘Changjiangkou No 2’. Discovered in 2015, the wreck dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) is the largest and best-preserved wooden shipwreck yet found in China. Located at the mouth of the Yangtze River, in the Hengsha Shoal northeast of Hengsha island in Chongming, off the coast of Shanghai, the 38.5×7.8m vessel has been identified as a trading ship operating during the Tongzhi Period of the time. With the modern well-known international metropolis of Shanghai having been one of the most important ports of the historical Maritime Silk Road, in all likelihood the vessel would have been carrying all sorts of Qing-era trade goods which today, are substantial cultural relics of Chinese archaeological and historical investigation. With this type of archaeological gravitas involved, it’s only logical that the Chinese Government would take substantial steps in not only preserving those cultural relics recovered from the seabed, but also in protecting them.

That was one of the reasons behind why at the beginning of the salvage operation, Li Qun, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, also publicly announced changes to China’s maritime archaeological laws. A month later, on 1 April 2022, China then quietly announced that it was implementing the newly revised Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Relics. Known colloquially as the Relics Protection Project, under this new law, archaeological excavation and salvaging of ancient Chinese-related underwater relics, including shipwrecks and their eventual relocations, as well as the protection of whatever material and other objects may remain onboard, and any subsequent building of whatever museum is needed to house them in, remains the property and possession of China. In Shanghai where the ‘Changjiangkou’ was found for example, Fang Shizhong, Director of the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Cultural Relics, looks forward to it bringing a new tourist curiosity to the region, especially in showcasing how Shanghai, as much then as it does now, was an important trade and shipping hub central not only to East Asian maritime waters, but the westernmost Pacific and global Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) as well.

As Wang Wei, chairman of the Chinese Archaeological Society advocated, this new maritime archaeological law is just underwater archaeology being done in the Chinese way, by the Chinese style and with Chinese characteristics. Basically he was arguing that it was not bad, just different, and given that China is excavating its own maritime heritage, in its own maritime zones, and using its own homegrown technologies and expertise to preserve them, should be applauded. This maritime archaeological milestone of ‘Changjiangkou’ according to Jiang Bo, Director of Maritime Archaeology at Shandong University, is that not only is it the largest wreck of its kind in Chinese waters, but that it also carries the largest underwater cache of artefacts ever found. Luckily, or perhaps fortuitously, it’s also the first large-scale shipwreck to fall under China’s new maritime cultural relics’ laws. That was why on 28 February 2022, when China’s Cabinet officially approved and updated the new regulations, overseeing the protection and supervision of any underwater artefacts China considers to be their possessions, that a new protective legislative function had to be clarified.

This was also why the Chinese Government redesigned the new regulations, not only providing regulatory building blocks within which China could better self-manage, salvage and preserve any historical artefacts found, but could also address potential criminal activities that might occur, such as any archaeological, salvage or what China deems, cultural theft, of any of its maritime archaeological possessions. The new law clarifies both functions and responsibilities of a plethora of Chinese Government departments tasked with responsibilities in maintaining amongst other things relevant to national interests, cultural heritage, public security and maritime safety. It’s worth noting that the new law only extends to those artefacts found that predate 1911, the historically agreed upon and accepted date ending both the Qing Dynasty and China’s Imperial system, but here’s the rub. China’s new Cultural Project Protection law applies not only to any relics found in Chinese waters, the Chinese Government is also applying this law to any relics identified as being of Chinese origin, in any international waters, located anywhere on the planet, as well.

Bearing this in mind, one of the other key concepts China will be considering is the instigation, delineation, demarcation and establishment of maritime protection zones around whatever subsurface cultural relics they might identify, as being in their national interests. That might include establishing protective areas across fishing zones for example, or busy SLOCS, around subsurface sea cables, or any other types of navigational hazards that might crop up in China’s maritime archaeological pathways. Even UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage that was ratified in 2001, or even UNCLOS in whatever form it’s taking in 2022, isn’t addressing China’s sub-surface strategising in terms of underwater cultural heritage protection into the geostrategic frame, and here’s the other rub. It might partly be the West’s fault.

In the 1980s, massive Western maritime archaeological expeditions and Western financed and commercially backed treasure hunters, were swarming across the South China Sea in search of shipwrecks and their onboard booty. Many pieces of which subsequently ended up in high prestige fine auction houses of New York, London and Paris, and ultimately in the prized possessions of wealthy Western collectors, and unscrupulous museum and antiquities suppliers. The latter of which we’ve seen in many of them coming to light over the past few years, including at Australia’s National Art Gallery, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre as cases in point. For the Chinese on the other hand, it was seemingly and potentially state-sanctioned grand theft of their own cultural heritage that was occurring. That’s why when the ‘Nanhai One’, a Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) shipwreck was found off the coast of Yangjiang in Guangdong Province in 1987, and full of porcelain, iron and other antiquities, China deployed its own armed protection units surrounding the wreck. At that time it wasn’t only in the protection of national heritage assets that mattered, it also highlighted the newly emerging Chinese focus on cultural reflection through historical education of artefacts, whether they be subsurface, above surface or otherwise.

Given that the new law also stipulates that all Chinese citizens, and organisations, no matter who they are, where they are or what they’re doing, are fully obligated to protecting China’s underwater relics in accordance with the new law, it opens up more than an international maritime Pandora’s box. Now, under China’s new rules, once a maritime artefact-related location is reported, China’s protection workers – armed or otherwise – must arrive on site within 24 hours, send an immediate situational report, followed seven days later by a formal draft solution back to the Chinese Government. If you tie all of this into how fast China’s maritime economy is developing, perhaps the recent expansion of Chinese maritime assets, including the deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines, and PLA-N destroyers lurking about the Indian and Pacific Oceans, off the coast of Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere, will become more frequent. And maybe it’s just an accident that many of these sea routes and SLOCs China’s naval assets are regularly being spotted sailing within, around, close to or occasionally accidently falling into, are just countries with ties to the ancient Maritime Silk Road. Of course, it’s still only early days yet, and China’s new law is only a couple of months old, but what happens next when/and or if China starts creating maritime protection zones in maritime areas it considers under its new national law as housing China’s underwater artefacts? What if these fall on various other countries sovereign maritime or EEZ boundaries? And what might this mean for those nations within and around the Pacific Ocean, if China starts setting up its own line of sight, maritime forward staging platforms in support of both?

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