In a move that appears to validate Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford’s concerns about China’s strategy of slowly expanding its territorial and military footprint in the Pacific, the Chinese government unveiled on Sunday a “magical” island-building ship on the eve of Donald Trump’s visit in a move likely to renew fears about its claims to territory in the South China Sea, the Financial Times reported.
Measuing 140 meters, the Tiankun is the biggest dredger in Asia, with cutters and pumps capable of smashing the equivalent of three Olympic pools of rock an hour from the sea floor and shooting it up to 15 kilometers away to create artificial land. Over the past five years, China has used similar vessels to create a string of strategic islands to support its claims to 85% of the territory in the South China Sea.
China has been widely criticized by the international community for its land-reclamation efforts in in the Spratley islands, where China has been building manmade bases over some of the since 2014. China has asserted its dominance of several groups of tiny islands in the South and East China Seas. China last year said it would not accept a ruling against it made in a key international legal case over the strategic reefs and atolls that China has asserted its authority over. In that ruling, the ICC decided that the islands belonged to the Philippines.
According to Newsweek, the US estimates China has added 3,200 acres of land on seven features (which includes rocky outcrops and reefs) over the past three years.
Between 2013 and the middle of 2016 - the peak phase of the island-building efforts - China created seven islands and reclaimed 2,000 acres, and built airfields, missile bases and radar systems.
Last year, Beijing appeared to signal it was halting large-scale dredging. However, the creation of the Tiankun would suggest otherwise. Launched at a shipyard in Jiangsu province on Friday, the Tiankun will enter service next year with Tianjin Dredging Company, an arm of state-owned China Communications Construction Company that has carried out most of the dredging in the South China Sea.
The Marine Design and Research Institute in Shanghai, which designed the vessel, described it as a “magic island-maker” on Saturday.
The US military has taken a more hard-line approach to China’s territorial claims in the Pacific since President Donald Trump took office. Since inauguration day, the US Navy has conducted at least four “freedom of operation” missions whereby US destroyers have sailed within 12 miles of the controversial islands. The most recent such mission occurred in mid-October. Each time, China has scrambled fighter jets and ships to intercept the US vessel.
As the FT pointed out, Washington’s opposition to China’s claims remains an irritant in bilateral relations, and the topic is expected to be an important point of discussion with Xi Jinping, China’s president, when Trump arrives in Beijing on Wednesday for a two-day visit.