A manned Chinese submersible successfully reached its lowest-ever depth Tuesday and can explore more than 70 percent of the world's sea floor, China's oceanic institution said.
The test dive comes amid increased tension in the South China Sea, where China and its neighbors dispute ownership over areas that potentially hold huge oil, gas and mineral reserves.
The three men on board took less than three hours to dive to a depth of 16,590 feet (5,057 meters), where they took photos of marine life, according to a statement posted on the State Oceanic Administration's website.
A follow-up dive will take samples from the seabed, it said, without saying when that would take place.
The Chinese-made Jiaolong _ named after a mythical sea dragon _ is designed to reach a depth of 23,000 feet (7,000 meters), state-run Xinhua News Agency said, quoting chief designer Xu Qinan.
Japan's Shinkai 6500 has the greatest depth range of any manned research vehicle in the world today _ 21,325 feet (6,500 meters), a depth that enables travel to at least 98 percent of the world's sea floor.
The U.S. Navy conducted the deepest ever dive by a manned submersible in 1960 _ the Bathyscaphe Trieste descended 35,800 feet (11,000 meters) to the Pacific's Mariana Trench.
China's test dive was carried out in "an international area" of the Pacific Ocean, Xinhua said.
The State Oceanic Administration plans to carry out a 23,000-foot (7,000-meter) test dive in 2012, Xinhua said.
China started the Jiaolong project in 2002. It was the fifth country to send a man 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) below sea level, after the United States, France, Russia and Japan, Xinhua said.