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Thursday, April 29, 1999 Published at 20:40 GMT 21:40 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Undersea treasure chest stirs up tensions

The discovery has drawn huge crowds to Brunei's national museum

By David Willis in the South China Sea

Watch David Willis report from the waters off Brunei
Shipwrecked treasure, recently recovered from the bottom of the South China Sea, is threatening to inflame a diplomatic row over an area believed to be rich in oil.

Divers working for the French oil company Elf, stumbled across the wreck of a 15th Century Chinese galleon containing a hoard of priceless porcelain and ceramic pieces.

[ image: Divers working for an oil company stumbled across the wreck]
Divers working for an oil company stumbled across the wreck
The ship went down off the coast of Brunei and is thought to contain one of the largest hauls of buried treasure ever uncovered.

Using the same two-seater submarine as those used to survey the Titanic, archaeologists uncovered an Aladdin's Cave of intricately painted ancient pottery.

For more than two months, a daily haul of hundreds of artefacts were hauled to the surface. Back on land, a vast hanger was built to clean and catalogue the discoveries, thought to be worth millions of dollars.

Timeless beauty

[ image: The treasure haul is thought to be worth millions]
The treasure haul is thought to be worth millions
"It's a fascinating project," says John Perry, Managing Director of Elf Petroleum Asia.

"The artefacts themselves, in their day may have been ordinary things in the street but today they have a timeless beauty, which is so hard to define but so real to touch."

For Brunei, a nation keen to lessen its dependence on oil revenue, the discovery has become a source of new national pride.

The artefacts provide the tiny sultanate with something money alone cannot buy - symbols of a cultural identity which, officials hope, will boost tourism.

Historical claims

[ image: Hundreds of items each day have been recovered]
Hundreds of items each day have been recovered
But the discovery of a series of such wrecks has been seized upon by China as evidence reinforcing its historical claims on the South China Sea.

Beijing says the discoveries prove Chinese vessels have been sailing the area since ancient times.

Five other countries in the region also lay claim to all or part of area's maritime territory - in particular to the Spratly Islands, which are reputed to hold the key to a much needed new source of oil.

Energy hungry

[ image: Rival claimants have been staking their claims to the South China Sea]
Rival claimants have been staking their claims to the South China Sea
East Asia is an energy hungry region, and some analysts warn that rival claims to oil untapped oil reserves under the South China Sea could spark a new regional war.

China watcher Dr Lee Lai To believes this latest find of sunken treasure may bring the competing claims to a head.

"All these finds will remind claimants that it is important for them to consolidate their control of their own areas," says Dr Lee.

Enflamed tensions

[ image: The Philippines has accused China of building military bases in the area]
The Philippines has accused China of building military bases in the area
"It is important for them to reiterate their claims and to find some way to control these areas."

For centuries, the South China Sea been the main transport route between Europe and China and the sea is said to be littered with many more wrecks.

This latest discovery is bound to heighten interest among treasure hunters keen to unearth their fortune from the seabed, but it could also inflame already simmering tensions in some of the world's most heavily disputed waters.

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