25 August 2015

Dredging Under the Radar: China Expands South Sea Foothold

Andrew S. Erickson and Kevin Bond, “Dredging Under the Radar: China Expands South Sea Foothold,” The National Interest, 26 August 2015.

Venturing ever further from the rivers and coasts that it helped develop in the first three decades of China’s post-Mao reforms, China’s burgeoning dredging fleet has not only excavated new land in the South China Sea, but has also given China a big new shovel to break ground on the seaward vector of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the “Maritime Silk Road.” Even after China finishes constructing new “islands,” its dredgers stand ready to support port construction and channel widening along its strengthening Silk Road. China’s rapid rise to the forefront of world dredging exemplifies its ability to leverage its broad economic and technological achievements into the advancement of the country’s strategic goals.

In June 2015, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang revealed that a large portion of China’s land reclamation work in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago would be completed soon, presumably timed in part to smooth the way for Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington in September. Lu also revealed that once land reclamation work was completed, China would begin constructing facilities related to satisfying the military and civilian functions of these newly crafted man-made islands, including disaster relief, search and rescue, weather observation, environmental protection, sea-lane security, and fisheries services. While China announced on August 11 that reclamation had halted in the area, it has also rejected U.S. proposals for a construction halt, calling it unfeasible and reiterating that “the South China Sea islands are China’s territory.” Recent construction has massively augmented seven locations: Johnson South, Gaven, Hughes, Cuarteron, Mischief, Fiery Cross, and Subi Reefs. Zhao acknowledged that “necessary defense facilities” would emerge as part of the next development phase.

Beijing’s South China Sea land reclamation work has reportedly resulted in 2900 acres of land reclaimed over a period of roughly 20 months, from early 2014 to August 2015. Here, perspective is important: of the other countries to reclaim land in the South China Sea, Vietnam has reclaimed 80 acres, Malaysia has reclaimed 70, the Philippines has reclaimed 14, and Taiwan has reclaimed approximately eight over various length of time. China has managed to create more than 17 times more land in 20 months than all of the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, accounting for 95% of all artificial land in the Spratlys. The scale of China’s land reclamation has alarmed both fellow claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines as well as Asia-Pacific actors like the United States, with the predominant American concern being that China will inhibit freedom of navigation, and freedom of the seas as traditionally understood, in the strategically significant South China Sea. This concern appears well-founded: Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua recently stated that there is “no freedom of navigation for warships and airplanes.” This friction generated divisions over a collective statement following the recent ASEAN foreign minister’s meeting, with the Philippines and Vietnam pushing against Beijing-supporters Cambodia and Laos in advocating for a stronger statement. The main driving force of China’s reclamation has been a fleet of new dredgers, including the technologically advanced self-propelled cutter-suction dredger (CSD) Tianjing, which is capable of dredging and reclaiming land at a rate of 4,500m3 an hour. These dredgers simply did not exist 15 years ago, yet now China can deploy dozens of them simultaneously in the South China Sea.

Once again, China’s rapid development has enabled it to muster a level of effort that smaller neighbors simply cannot match, even collectively, permanently altering geography in the Spratlys. Do you have a need to create over 2,000 football fields’ worth of new land in the course of a year and a half? If you’re China, there’s a ship for that. Well, actually, there are many ships for that. They spring from sizable, directed investments into the Chinese dredging industry that have seen China’s dredging capacity more than triple in the past fifteen years and given China a valuable new tool for building not only islands in the South China Sea, but also much of the port infrastructure needed for its Maritime Silk Road. …