China recently launched Asia's biggest dredging ship, raising fears in Southeast Asia that Beijing will use it to further its claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
The Tiankun, dubbed by designers as "the magical island maker," won't enter service until June of next year, according to China's official Xinhua news service.
The 140-meter-long vessel is currently being tested in waters off China's Jiangsu Province, which is located in the eastern part of China and far from the South China Sea. Its ultimate destination was not disclosed.
Experts are puzzling over what signals Beijing might be sending by announcing the vessel's launch shortly before an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting was set to begin in Vietnam.
According to Murray Hiebert, senior associate in the Southeast Asia Program at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Beijing may be showing off its new dredger as a signal to President Donald J. Trump.
The aim would be "to show that China has global interests, including in the Asia-Pacific," says Hiebert.
The unveiling of the "magical" dredger by Xinhua on Nov. 3, says Hiebert, "can also be seen as a signal to Southeast Asia claimants in the South China Sea, particularly Vietnam."
Putting it another way, China seems to be telling rival claimants that China is in the South China Sea to stay and may build more artificial islands with military installations on them to protect its claims.
Vietnam has stood out--at least until recently--as the most vocal among Southeast Asian nations resisting China's moves to dominate the South China Sea.
The regional sea carries one third of the world's maritime trade. It's also said to harbor rich deposits of oil and natural gas.
The importance of the oil reserves was dramatized during an incident involving China and Vietnam which occurred in early August of this year.
A Spanish company contracted by Hanoi said that it had suspended oil drilling in a block off Vietnam, "where prospecting in South China Sea waters claimed by China infuriated Beijing and brought Chinese pressure on Vietnam to stop," according to a Reuters news agency report.
Western scientists say that the vast waterway's diverse marine environment also adds to the sea's importance.
Millions of people depend on fish from the South China Sea as their main source of protein. But the sea has been overfished by China's fishing fleet, leaving some fish species in danger of collapse.
As the demand for fish grows among China's middle class, overfishing has threatened the survival of some fish species, and fish stocks have declined, as they have in many other parts of the world
Some forms of dredging have also destroyed coral reefs, which protect and support certain species of fish.
Dredgers stir up plumes of sand and silt that damage coral tissue and block sunlight from organisms such as reef-building corals which cannot survive without it, according to reports published in scientific journals.
Since 2013 China has been dredging sand, gravel, and silt in the South China Sea and depositing it onto rocks, reefs, and sandbars to create artificial islands.
Chinese military and construction teams have followed up by building airstrips that can accommodate fighter planes and placing hangers, radar, and anti-aircraft guns on the islands.
The newly unveiled dredger will be more powerful than any used previously.
According to Xinhua, the Tiankun, designed by the Tianjin Dredging Co., can dredge 6,000 cubic meters per hour, dig as deep as 35 meters under the sea floor, and pump sand and silt into the vessel. It can then blow the sand and silt out as far as 15, 000 meters away.
China claims most of the South China Sea as its territorial waters, based on what it describes as history going back for centuries.
But six governments have overlapping claims with China in the vast waterway, including those of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Taiwan's claims are almost identical to those of China.
China says that the much-disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands were once under the control of imperial China.
Vietnam disputes China's historical account, saying that China never claimed sovereignty over these islands until the 1940s.
Nearly all of the islands' claimants are gathering in Vietnam this weekend for an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit.
Speaking on Friday in Da Nang, Vietnam, U.S. President Donald Trump delivered an "America First" speech focused on what he described as unfair trade practices.
When it came to what Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations consider to be China's growing dominance in the South China Sea, Trump made a clear reference to the South China Sea, mentioning a need for "freedom of navigation and overflight, including open shipping lanes."
The United States takes no position on various sovereignty claims in the region.
But the U.S. does conduct "freedom-of-navigation" operations in which it challenges Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea by sailing through international waters.
The latest of these occurred a month ago, on Oct. 10, when the missile destroyer USS Chafee entered waters near the Paracel Islands.
This triggered a public complaint from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
Trump's Da Nang speech on Friday also spoke of creating a free and open "Indo-Pacific region" through a grouping of four democracies-- U.S., Japan, Australia, and India.
According to The Wall Street Journal's veteran columnist Andrew Browne, such a grouping would look to China "like a strategy to contain its advance."
Meanwhile, Beijing is not halting that advance.
As Browne puts it, China's President Xi Jinping "is likely to calculate that time is on his side"
China's new super-dredger "embodies Beijing's strategy of pushing Chinese interests by any means short of war," says Browne.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.
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