Chinese state-run media announced on November 3 the launch of a new dredging ship that could significantly expand island building capabilities in the South China Sea. According to RT, experts expect the 140-meter-long Tian Kun Hao to finish necessary tests and enter service next summer. If the ship emerges successfully, it will be the largest ship of its kind in Asia.
Due to its advanced control systems, the ship does not require a crew and can dredge up to 6,000 cubic meters of land per hour, reaching depths of up to 35 meters below the surface. Unlike conventional dredging operations, this ship can move sand and rock directly through a pipeline, allowing it to expand islands faster than previous ships.
While the vessel may be used for any number of legitimate engineering projects along China’s coast, many fear that it will extend Chinese influence through the South China Sea.
According to the Global Times, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry cautioned against “exaggerating or over-interpreting its meaning,” in an apparent attempt to dissuade concerns about the ship’s use. The ship could aid construction of deepwater ports throughout the region as part of China’s ongoing Belt and Road infrastructure development initiative. Additionally, Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yushof Ishak Institute, said that restarting land reclamation features would undermine diplomatic progress Beijing has made during a recent period of decreased tension in the region.
However, the ship’s designer, the Marine Design and Research Institute in Shanghai, referred to it as a “magic island builder,” and local media described it as a “military defense project,” both of which depict the ship as a tool to continue China’s ongoing island reclamation projects in the South China Sea. China has employed similar vessels for island building projects since 2013, albeit on a smaller scale. Xi Jinping noted in his speech to the Communist Party Congress last month that “China has seen steady progress in construction on islands and reefs.
In response, the Philippines’s Defense Ministry issued a statement expressing its concern, with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announcing that while the Philippines were unsure of how the ship would be utilized, its “mere presence” was problematic. In response to the announcement, the Philippines began constructing a beach ramp on the largest island they hold in the South China Sea.
The United States also expressed concern ahead of President Trump’s visit, with both a State Department spokesman and the Admiral in charge of U.S. Pacific Command condemning China’s reclamation activities.