China’s new ‘super island builder’ set to roll in South China Sea
Last week, China announced that it had plans to add to its fleet of the 200 dredging vessels it has built since 2006, with plans to build a never-before-seen dredger ‘super island builder’ equipped with a 10,000KW reamer.
Under construction by the Tianjin Waterway Bureau, the dredger will significantly outperform the previous flagship of its nature.
The dredger Tian Jing, also built by Tianjin Waterway Bureau, was equipped with a 4.4MW reamer and was essential in constructing China’s artificial islands between 2013-2014.
Since 2013, China has constructed more than 2,470 acres of land in artificial islands, an expansion that has created tension for sea-sharing neighbors Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
According to Radio Free Asia, photographs released last year by Ezra Acayan, photographer for Getty images, show these artificial islands to be heavily equipped and militarized. The revelation created concern as China had maintained it was building islands for navigation purposes.
Greg Poling, Director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), analyzed photos of Fiery Cross, an artificial island constructed by China, for Radio Free Asia.
“The image of a KJ-500 on the runway is compelling and confirms that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is still regularly flying aerial patrols off the island,” Poling said.
On other islands, such as Subi Reef, Poling noted runways were blocked, preventing access to outsiders.
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“This is an unsafe act, hostile to anyone else flying in the area,” Poling noted, “This once again puts the lie to the idea these islands were built for navigational safety of all.”
Outside of concerns that the islands have been fortified with military equipment including domes that house radar equipment, gun turrets, and military personnel, concerns over shifting territory have emerged, particularly in Taiwan.
As China builds islands, the expansion allows the ‘claiming’ of waterways around the islands. The bigger China’s islands become and the closer they are built to Taiwan, the harder Taiwan’s coast guard must fight to maintain sovereign waterways and protect their environmental conditions.
According to NikkeiAsia, it’s created a difficult political position for Taiwan, particularly Matsu Island. Lii Wen, a former reporter who now serves as head of his local chapter of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), explained the conflict.
“China is getting smarter and more creative in its ways of exerting pressure,” Lii said, “If Taiwan fails to respond, then we allow the destruction of our environment and infrastructure. But if Taiwan responds with military force on civilian dredgers, then it gives China an excise to escalate tensions.”
Reportedly, Taiwan expelled nearly 4,000 Chinese sand dredgers from waters between Taiwan and newly constructed islands in 2020.
While a date for the new reamer to initiate operation has not been announced, adding a ship that significantly increases China’s dredging capabilities is likely to increase the conflict over waterway rights and ownership between Taiwan and China