China's 'magic island maker' stirs up slurry of unease

As Mr Donald Trump landed in Tokyo this past weekend and just days before he was to begin his first official visit to Beijing, China had a little surprise for the US President. It unveiled a giant island-building ship that is sure to create new anxiety in South-east Asia about stepped-up Chinese efforts to assert its territorial control and claims in the South China Sea.

Dubbed a "magic island maker" by its designers, the 140m Tian Kun Hao is reportedly capable of dredging 6,000 cubic metres of sand an hour from 35m beneath the sea and shoot it 15km away to create new land features.

South-east Asia analysts had wondered, in the days since President Xi Jinping's opening speech at the recently completed Communist Party congress, where Beijing would focus its energy: on tackling domestic challenges and increasing party control or on implementing a more assertive foreign policy in China's southern neighbourhood?

Some observers thought Beijing might soft-pedal its South China Sea claims because China's position in South-east Asia had improved dramatically in recent years. One of its biggest coups was in the Philippines where then newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte pocketed the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling to improve ties with China and get pledges of billions of dollars for development projects.

 

In recent years, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar have also moved to develop closer ties with China, often at the expense of the United States. And in talks between China and South-east Asian foreign ministers at the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in August, Asean appeared to go along with China in agreeing to keep negotiating the framework of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea even if its terms were not binding.

These analysts also assumed that Mr Xi would not want to create anxiety in South-east Asia in order to push for his signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious infrastructure project that envisages a railway line running from southern China to Singapore, through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia, to better link mainland South-east Asia to Kunming.

But a careful reading of Mr Xi's 19th party congress speech, specifically his reference to "steady progress" in the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea as a major achievement of his first term, indicates that he is not setting aside the goal of asserting China's control of the strategic sea even if it strained relations with South-east Asian capitals and Washington.

Choosing this time to unveil the island-builder suggests that Beijing will pursue a dual track of pushing the BRI while also increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Beijing may have chosen to show off its new digger, which is slated to begin operations in June, as a signal to Mr Trump that China has growing global interests, including in the Asia-Pacific. Since 2012, China has used smaller ships to build up seven islands and reclaim nearly 1,300ha outfitted with airfields, missile bases and radar installations, to support its claims to much of the South China Sea.

The unveiling of the "magic" dredger at this time can also be read as a signal to the South-east Asia claimants in the South China Sea, particularly Vietnam, where Mr Xi is slated to visit on Nov 12, right after Mr Trump visits Beijing.

Vietnam has challenged China's claims in the strategic waterway more than other South-east Asian claimants. In June, Beijing pressed Vietnam to force Spanish oil company Repsol to end its oil exploration activity in the country's exclusive economic zone in the far south but inside China's nine-dash line. Hanoi's move appeared to be tactical to avoid conflict ahead of China's party congress and Vietnam's hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, as well as state visits by both Mr Xi and Mr Trump.

Even in the Philippines, which has pivoted towards China under Mr Duterte, the new dredging ship has stoked unease. "The mere presence is a little concerning," Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told journalists in Manila. "Where it is going, we do not know."

Chinese officials have so far said little about the new vessel, but Beijing-based military expert Li Jie tried to reassure China's neighbours that there was little to worry about. "China will abide by the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea… and won't use the dredger to expand artificial islands," he told the South China Morning Post. One problem with his comment is that the Code of Conduct has not yet been negotiated.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at the ARF in August, implied that Beijing had ended its reclamation activities in the South China Sea in mid-2015, but that appears to have mainly applied to the Spratly Island grouping in the south. Reclamation work has continued further north in the Paracel Islands, most recently around Tree Island and North Island, according to satellite images released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Since Mr Trump took office in January, the US has conducted four freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, most recently on Oct 10, to challenge China's maritime claims.

He can be expected to express concerns about China's plans for the new island maker with Mr Xi when he visits Beijing later this week.

Mr Trump's aides say his 12-day trip to Asia is intended to signal that the US remains deeply engaged in the region even if the President pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement a few days after taking office.

Mr Trump is also expected to moot the development of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" region, an idea first touted by Japan and then highlighted in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's foreign policy speech a few weeks ago. Beijing likely sees this new formulation, which includes cooperation among the democracies of Japan, India, Australia and the US, as a challenge to China.

China may have intended the Tian Kun Hao as an impressive reminder of its ability to assert its claims, but the new ship could also play into the hands of Mr Trump as countries in the region may be prompted to take another look to Washington to balance China's growing clout.


  • The writer is senior associate in the South-east Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2017, with the headline 'China's 'magic island maker' stirs up slurry of unease'. Print Edition | Subscribe