China has a new, massive 'magic island-making' ship that could escalate tensions in the South China Sea

Picture: Getty Images
  • China is testing a new ship capable of building islands and leading massive land reclamation in the South China Sea.
  • The ship is being called a “magic island-maker,” and is likely to become the biggest dredging vessel in Asia.
  • The vessel has sparked concerns among countries in the region, who view China as an aggressor.

China has unveiled a new dredging vessel that is expected to be the largest and most powerful of its kind in Asia, a move that could escalate tensions over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

The vessel’s designer, the Marine Design and Research Institute in Shanghai, has dubbed the new ship a “magic island-maker.” China started to test the ship on the eve of President Donald Trump’s 12-day visit to Asia.

Beijing has spent billions of dollars building artificial islands in the region over the last few years, infuriating the US and its neighbours, most of whom claim sovereignty over parts of the area. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have contested the land.

“The mere presence is a little bit concerning,” Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters on Monday. “Where it is going, we do not know.”

Between 2013 and 2016, China created seven islands, reclaimed 2,000 acres of land, built airfields, missile bases, and radar systems in the region, according to The Financial Times.

China’s new ship, Tian Kun Hao, is named after “a legendary enormous fish which can turn into a mythical bird,” according to the BBC. It reportedly has a deck the size of nine basketball courts and is capable of dredging up more than 210,000 cubic feet per hour and digging more than 100 feet below the ocean floor.

It’s unclear if Trump will discuss Chinese dredging activities in the South China Sea when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week. In the past, critics have accused Trump of sending mixed signals over China’s island-building and failing to speak out strongly enough against Beijing’s aggression.

The US military has, however, conducted several Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea since Trump came into office, angering China.

Questioning China’s intentions

South china sea protestDondi Tawatao/GettyAnti-China protestors in the Philippines mount a protest rally against China’s territorial claims in the Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea.

The presence of dredging vessels is not inherently concerning. They serve a wide range of functions, including preventing coastal erosion and creating safe waterway passages for boats and ships.

But China’s long-established claims in the South China Sea and previous actions in the region leave many sceptics worried that the powerful Tian Kun Hao won’t be so innocent.

“Creating such dredging technology could be part of China’s quest to become a maritime power,” Collin Koh, a maritime security expert, told the South China Morning Post. “Until it becomes clearer what its intentions are, the dredger … will cause speculation about further island building and could prompt countermeasures.”

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