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BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Thursday it had used a small, manned submarine to plant the national flag deep beneath the South China Sea, where Beijing has tussled with Washington and Southeast Asian nations over territorial disputes.
The submarine achieved the feat during 17 dives from May to July, when it went as deep as 3,759 metres (12,330 ft) below the South China Sea, the official China News Service said, citing the Ministry of Science and Technology and State Oceanic Administration.
Chinese news reports did not say where the submarine went, whether it visited disputed waters, or why the announcement was held off until now. It was the first time a Chinese submersible vehicle has gone that deep, said the reports.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan all stake claims to territory in the South China Sea, which holds potentially big energy sources and is a major shipping route. All except Brunei have a military presence in the area, and the boundary claims have sparked naval clashes in the past.
The submarine test underscored China's ambitions to join the race for resources in the ocean depths.
"This success also shows that our country has become one of the handful possessing deep-sea manned submersible technology," Liu Feng, the engineer in charge of the deep-sea dive, told television news.
The South China Sea covers an area of more than 648,000 sq miles (1.7 million sq km), with more than 200 mostly uninhabitable small islands, rocks and reefs. It reaches depths of up to 4,000 metres, according to Chinese government surveyors.
The sea holds valuable fishing grounds and as-yet largely unexploited oil and natural gas fields.
China accused the United States of meddling after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the territorial claims in the sea at a regional forum in July, and said Washington backed a multilateral approach to resolving them.
In late July, Chinese naval forces carried out drills in the disputed southern waters. (Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ben Blanchard)