China has unveiled a “magical” island-building ship on the eve of Donald Trump’s visit in a move likely to renew fears about its claims to territory in the South China Sea.
At 140 metres the Tiankun is the biggest dredger in Asia, with cutters and pumps capable of smashing the equivalent of three Olympic pools of rock an hour from the sea floor and shooting it 15km away to create land. During the past five years, China has used similar vessels to create a string of strategic islands to support its claims to 85 per cent of the sea.
Between 2013 and the middle of 2016, the peak phase of the island-building efforts, China created seven islands and reclaimed 2,000 acres, and built airfields, missile bases and radar systems. Last year Beijing appeared to signal it was halting large-scale dredging, though the Tiankun shows the programme is likely to continue.
The Marine Design and Research Institute in Shanghai, which designed the vessel, described it as a “magic island-maker” on Saturday.
Launched at a shipyard in Jiangsu province on Friday, the Tiankun will enter service next year with Tianjin Dredging Company, an arm of state-owned China Communications Construction Company that has carried out most of the dredging in the South China Sea.
The US has accused China of militarising the South China Sea, although Beijing insists its intentions are peaceful. Washington’s opposition to China’s claims remains an irritant in relations, and the topic is expected to be an important point of discussion with Xi Jinping, China’s president, when Mr Trump arrives in Beijing on Wednesday for a two-day visit.
The US has conducted regular “freedom of navigation” naval operations through the South China Sea to challenge China’s claims to the territory and its artificial islands.
The latest came on Oct 10, when the Chafee, a US guided missile destroyer, carried out normal manoeuvring operations that challenged “excessive maritime claims” near the Paracel Islands, Reuters reported, citing three US officials.
China’s defence ministry said a warship, two fighter jets and a helicopter had been sent to warn the Chafee away. Tianjin held the previous Asia record for the largest dredger: the Tian Jing Hao, was designed by Vosta of Germany and built by China Merchants Group at a cost of $130m.