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.