China’s military wants the ability to create large modular artificial islands that can be repositioned around the world as necessary. And it’s not as outlandish a goal as it might seem.
According to Navy Recognition, China’s Jidong Development Group unveiled its first design for a Chinese-built Very Large Floating Structure (VLSFs) at its National Defence Science and Technology Achievement exhibition in Beijing at the end of July. The structures are comprised of numerous smaller floating modules that can be assembled together at sea in order to create a larger floating platform.
VLSFs have a number of uses. The artificial islands can be used as fake islands for touristic purposes, or can also be constructed to function as piers, military bases, or even floating airports, Navy Recognition notes.
But China’s proposed VLSFs would have a purpose-built design that would allow the platforms to function as floating military bases. According to Popular Science, their modular Lego block-like design allows for the islands to be easily constructed far away from port. Additionally, the modular nature of the VLSFs ensure that the structures are highly compartmentalized. This ensures that the islands would be harder to sink as a large number of different modules would need to be damaged before a VLSF would become unseaworthy.
Popular Science also notes that a VLSF, if properly constructed, could hypothetically carry a significantly larger compliment of planes, aircraft, and supplies than a traditional aircraft carrier. A VSLF could also have a longer runway as well, meaning it could accommodate much larger aircraft, even if it would be far less mobile than a carrier.
So far, China has yet to start construction on any VLSFs. But Beijing’s official unveiling of the idea reflects the country’s ongoing interest in high-end defence concepts, especially ones that could help project Chinese hard power into disputed maritime areas.
As China continues to try to expand its sphere of influence throughout Asia, particularly in the South China Sea, the idea of a moveable artificial island has obvious strategic appeal.
“[W]ith China showing a remarkable ability to rapidly convert coral reefs into military outposts, [VLSF’S] could be a particularly useful supplement to its anti-access, area-denial systems (A2/AD),” Jack Detsch writes for The Diplomat. “The battle stations could also do more to offset Washington’s tremendous basing advantages in the Asia-Pacific theatre.”
China’s construction of VLSFs would follow Beijing’s other, more advanced island-building project. China is rapidly dredging and constructing artificial islands on top of coral shoals and reefs throughout the South China Sea. So far, China has constructed over 1.5 square miles of artificial islands. According to Reuters, Beijing has completed advanced stages of construction for six different island reefs throughout the sea and has started work on a seventh island.
China’s actions in the South China Sea risk escalating a series of territorial disputes. A number of neighbouring countries claim the reefs, islands, and oil and gas deposits in the area:
Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines also have military bases within the South China Sea on islands that those countries control.