Skip to main content

Test of Chinese Vessel in Contested Sea Adds Speed Bump to Diplomacy

November 06, 2017 8:27 AM

Ralph Jennings

This photo taken on Nov. 3, 2017 shows the ship 'Tian Kun Hao' being launched at a port in Qidong in China's eastern Jiangsu province.



China’s announcement of a super-sized reclamation vessel for use in the disputed South China Sea stands to rile much of Asia as well as the U.S. government during a month of meetings among the region's top leaders.

Beijing has begun testing Asia’s largest deep-water dredging vessel, the Tian Kun Hao, according to the state-run China Daily’s website Sunday. The report said the140-meter-long vessel can dredge 6,000 cubic meters of land per hour up to 35 meters under the sea floor.

The vessel can accelerate the creation of artificial islands, a process that would let it expand control of the South China Sea where most natural features are too small for development.

“From a diplomatic angle, it does not transmit a positive message at this moment,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

“I don’t know why they are doing this, because based on the traditional Chinese strategic culture, it does not encourage showing strength during a period of uncertainty,” Huang said. “It might mean that China is much more confident than what they can do and they will be not be bothered by the views of the neighbors or parties concerned.”

Senior-level meetings ahead

China claims about 90 percent of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer body of water, overlapping the claims of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

South China Sea Territorial Claims

Senior Chinese leaders are due to meet through mid-November with counterparts from as many as 10 Southeast Asian countries as well as U.S. President Donald Trump, who is making his first visit as president to Asia.

The South China Sea issue has become low-key over the past year as rival claimants talk with China about development aid and maritime cooperation, including a code of conduct aimed at preventing clashes at sea.

To smooth diplomacy, nations including China often shelve controversial actions until after high-level meetings. The U.S. government, for example, delayed approval of an $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan until three months after Trump had met Chinese President Xi Jinping in April. Xi would have been angered as China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory.

Avoid offending Manila

China will probably hold off dredging more of the Spratly Islands, which total about 100 tiny features to make up the most widely contested archipelago in the resource-rich sea, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.

That delay would protect a Sino-Philippine friendship that has formed over the past year, he said. Manila won a world court arbitration ruling in July 2016 over the extent of China’s maritime claims, capping off four years of hostilities. The Philippines controls nine Spratly islets.

FILE - In this April 21, 2017, photo, an airstrip and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130.

Since October last year, the two countries have set aside the dispute as China prepares billions of U.S. dollars in aid and investment for the Philippines.

China has used an estimated 3,200 acres (1,294 hectares) of landfill to build artificial islets in the Paracel and Spratly chains, partly for military infrastructure. The Chinese military is stronger than the armed forces of other countries with maritime claims.

Map of Paracel Islands in South China Sea.

The dredging vessel can extract land from an area the size of a meter-deep soccer field within an hour, China Daily reports. The Southeast Asian maritime claimants lack China’s budget and level of expertise to develop their own deep-sea reclamation equipment, Batongbacal added.

Where the dredger might excavate first

China may use the dredging vessel first to landfill in the Paracel Islands, a chain of some 130 tiny features, he said.

“They’re already continuing with respect to the Paracels, so I think for the Spratlys, they’ll probably go back when in their view conditions security-wise will warrant it,” Batongbacal said.

Testing of the Chinese dredging vessel is most likely to irritate Vietnam because it also claims the Paracel chain but lacks effective control of it, said Le Hong Hiep, research fellow with ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Seven Chinese-held islands in the Spratly chain are built out, he said, making the Paracels a likely next target.

Sino-Vietnamese hostilities

Vietnam and China, which have faced territorial disputes for centuries, rammed each other’s boats in 2014 after a Chinese company placed an oil rig about 240 kilometers east of Vietnam. China forced Vietnam to cancel an undersea fuel explanation project in June this year, analysts believe.

FILE - The Vietnamese-claimed Southwest Cay island in the Spratly island group is seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane.

More construction in the Paracels would erode Vietnam’s claim as well as international support for it, Le said.

“I think [the dredging vessel] is part of China’s plan to build artificial islands in the South China Sea and to consolidate its footholds in the region,” he said.

But China probably announced the vessel not to coincide with high-level meetings this month, rather as part of a longer “roadmap” for its maritime expansion, Le said.

In Vietnam this month, Xi is scheduled to meet the Vietnamese president, prime minister and ruling party head, its official Xinhua News Service said. Those meetings will tell whether the dredger’s release has impact, Le added.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis might also get upset about the dredger, Huang said. Mattis in June said construction and militarization of artificial islands “undermine regional stability,” according to a Department of Defense transcript


Popular posts from this blog

Balochistan to establish first medical university

The Newspaper's Staff CorrespondentOctober 25, 2017QUETTA: The provincial cabinet on Tuesday approved the draft for establishing a medical university in Balochistan.Health minister Mir Rehmat Saleh Baloch made the announcement while speaking at a press conference after a cabinet meeting.“The cabinet has approved the draft of the medical university which would be presented in the current session of the Balochistan Assembly,” he said, adding with the assembly’s approval the Bolan Medical College would be converted into a medical university.Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2017

5 Shia Hazara community members gunned down in Pakistan

Five members of the minority Shia Hazara community, including two women, were killed on Sunday in an attack by unidentified gunmen in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province.This is not the first time that members of the Hazara community have been targeted in Quetta and other parts of Balochistan.(Reuters File Photo)Updated: Sep 11, 2017 00:20 ISTBy Press Trust of India, Press Trust of India, KarachiFive members of the minority Shia Hazara community, including two women, were killed on Sunday in an attack by unidentified gunmen in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province.The gunmen targeted a car in Kuchluck area of Quetta while it was coming from the Chaman border crossing area, police said.The firing took place when the travellers had stopped at a filling station to refuel their vehicle. Five people of the Shia Hazara community, including two women, died in …

China’s 'Digital Silk Road': Pitfalls Among High Hopes

Will information and communication technologies help China realize its Digital Silk Road?By Wenyuan WuNovember 03, 2017In his speech at the opening ceremony of China’s 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping depicted China as a model of scientific and harmonious development for developing nations. Xi’s China wants to engage the world through commerce but also through environmental protection and technological advancement. This includes Beijing’s efforts to fight climate change with information and communication technologies (ICTs) that it plans to export along its “One Belt One Road” initiative (OBOR). Xi may have ambitious plans, but could China be throwing up obstacles in its own way?In his speech, the Chinese president emphasized the need to modernize the country’s environmental protections. The Chinese state is taking an “ecological civilization” approach to development and diplomacy, with a natio…