China unveils ‘magic island maker’ dredger ahead of Trump visit

Ship a boost for territorial claims in South China Sea, which is source of regional tensions

The ship Tian Kun Hao being launched at a port in Qidong in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The ship Tian Kun Hao being launched at a port in Qidong in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

In a move set to crank up regional tensions ahead of Donald Trump’s visit to Beijing, China has tested a new dredger ship, dubbed a “magic island maker” by its designers, which will give its controversial land reclamation programmes a major boost.

The new 140-metre long vessel, the Tian Kun Hao, is the biggest of its kind in Asia and has a full displacement of 17,000 tons. It is capable of dredging up to 6,000 cubic metres of sand, mud and coral from the seabed every hour, the equivalent to three standard swimming pools per hour.

China has built military facilities on reclaimed land in the region, which is dotted with reefs and islets, to back its territorial claims, which are disputed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam as well as the US.

Washington has accused China of militarising the South China Sea but increasingly Beijing’s response is to tell the US not to interfere in what it considers a domestic issue.

“The South China Sea issue isn’t an issue between China and the United States, ” deputy foreign minister Zheng Zeguang said last week, adding that China had indisputable sovereignty over islands and surrounding waters, something indeed disputed by the international maritime court in The Hague last year.

The issue may come up during Mr Trump’s trip to Beijing this week, part of his 12-day Asia visit, although the focus is more likely to be on the Korean nuclear crisis.

One of the engineers on the project said only four countries – China, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany – are able to build these technically sophisticated cutter-suction dredgers.

“The development of the Tiankun indicates that we have become one of the leaders in the marine engineering sector,” Fei Long, deputy chief designer at the Marine Design and Research Institute, told the China Daily.

In July, Chinese soldiers were treated to a propaganda movie on reclaimed land on Woody Island in the South China Sea after the opening of a cinema on land also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

China’s reclaimed land facilities are located in the Paracel and Spratly island chains. On Woody Island in the Paracels, known as Yongxing Island in China, it has an airfield with fighter jets, while in the Spratly chain it has dredged seven islands at Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs. It has placed anti-aircraft missile batteries on the islands and built a 3,000 metre-long airstrip that can handle bombers for what Beijing says are defensive purposes.

Technically the dredger is impressive. It has four types of cutters that can even cut through hard rock. The material dredged can be conveyed as far as 15km away, then piled up to form new land. – Additional reporting agencies