Launch of Beijing’s new dredger may spark concerns of renewed island building in South China Sea

Testing of Tian Kun Hao could upset Beijing’s neighbours, but Chinese analyst says vessel will not be used to boost China’s claims in disputed waters

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 November, 2017, 10:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 8:27pm

China celebrated another maritime milestone on Friday as a new home-grown dredging vessel, described as one of the world’s most advanced, began water tests.

The 140-metre-long, 28-metre-wide Tian Kun Hao, which took to the water at Qidong in eastern Jiangsu province, was described by some local media as “Asia’s most powerful island maker”.

Given Beijing’s earlier island-building activities in the South China Sea, such a description could easily cause alarm among regional neighbours, especially as the new vessel will replace the Tian Jing Hao – which was used extensively for such purposes – as Asia’s largest.

China still building South China Sea islands, think tank says

At least one expert was quick to ease any possible concerns, however.

“China will abide by the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea … and won’t use the dredger to expand its artificial islands,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based military expert, said.

The massive vessel, which has been designed and built by state-owned CCCC Tianjin Dredging was expected to be ready to go into service next summer, Xinhua reported on Friday.

Infographic: Conflicting claims in the South China Sea

With a deck the size of nine basketball courts, it is capable of dredging up to 6,000 cubic metres an hour and can dig as deep as 35 metres under the sea floor. It also has an advanced global positioning system and thanks to an automatic control system can be operated without any crew.

Tian Kun can blast through seabed rocks, suck up sand, and pump material through a pipeline over a distance of up to 15km, allowing it to dredge in one spot and refill in another without requiring landfill material to be transported from elsewhere. That gives it the unique edge to reclaim land at a faster speed and greater efficiency than conventional operations.

Despite Li’s assurance that the vessel would be used only for civilian purposes, some regional observers remained sceptical.

Could 2,000km-range drone secure China’s presence in South China Sea?

Collin Koh, a maritime security expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that while the Tian Kun Hao could be used to help small islands deal with rising sea levels caused by climate change, nations with rival claims in the South China Sea might be concerned that it suggested Beijing was preparing to reassert its dominance in the disputed waters.

“Creating such dredging technology could be part of China’s quest to become a maritime power,” he said.

“Until it becomes clearer what its intentions are, the dredger … will cause speculation about further island building and could prompt countermeasures.”

Xi personally behind island-building in the South China Sea

China has invested heavily in its dredging industry over the past decade, with an estimated 200 vessels built since 2006. It is now one of the world’s biggest dredger manufacturers and its machines have been used extensively in the country’s island-building projects.

Before the Tian Kun Hao, the largest such vessel was the Tian Jing Hao, which was designed by Shanghai Jiaotong University in cooperation with a German company.

The Tian Jing, a self-propelled cutter suction dredger, can excavate 4,500 cubic metres of sand per hour. It is reported to have spent 193 days moving among five reefs in the Spratly Islands between September 2013 and June 2014.