The Tian Kun Hao undertook its first water tests on Friday. Named after a massive fish in Chinese mythology, the ship is 460 feet long and can mine 212,000 cubic feet of sediment from the ocean floor every hour — enough to fill three olympic swimming pools.
Sediment can then be fired as far as 15 miles away to create new islands via land reclamation. This will allow Beijing to create new islands with incredible speed, making them appear as though by "magic."
The Tian Kun Hao is a cutter suction type dredger, meaning it extends a pipe with a blade on the end to the ocean floor. The blade hacks pieces of sediment off, and they are then suctioned up the pipe. This type was chosen for specific use in the South China Sea, according to chief engineer Zhang Xiaofeng. "For example, there are many hard coral reefs on the sea floor of the South China Sea," Zhang told state media.
The South China Sea, a strategically and economically key maritime region, is disputed between numerous Asian nations. Beijing is particularly interested in land reclamation there to support construction projects it launched in the area starting in 2013.
Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim some shred of the region — but China has aggressively pushed their claim through the construction of artificial islands around the disputed Spratly Islands and military exercises throughout the sea.
While Beijing argues that the only purpose of these formations is to aid with navigation, weather forecasts and fishing, rivals such as the US and ASEAN argue that the islands are meant to be used as PRC military bases.
The Philippines, which in 2016 took China to the International Court of Arbitration over competing claims in the South China Sea, has expressed concern over the Tian Kun's island-building potential. "The mere presence is a little bit concerning," Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters. "Where it is going, we do not know."
"We are constantly monitoring the movement of the ship. We have also our air patrol going regularly, so we will be able to monitor movement of this so-called very big dredger ship."
But China is unlikely to build more around the Spratly Islands, as that would endanger a tenuous friendship they have fostered with erstwhile rival Manila. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a US think tank, said in August that China's land reclamation has shifted to the Paracel Islands instead. That land is disputed between China and Vietnam, a nation that Beijing has been frequently at odds with.
Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong said on Friday that China and Vietnam had hashed out a peaceful resolution to the dispute, and will continue to communicate to address any future conflicts. However, Chinese military forces remain deployed on the Paracel Islands.
Complicating the clashing territory claims in the South China Sea are US and Indian Navy vessels patrolling and performing military exercises in the key maritime region. Washington argues that these exercises are to ensure Freedom of Navigation — the right for ships to travel through international waters without being harassed — is being respected.
By calling the South China Sea international waters, the US is also tacitly denying the Chinese claims to sovereignty over the region. Unsurprisingly, Beijing has not been pleased.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang slammed the US operations in the region in September. "For some time now, some countries have used the pretext of freedom of navigation to bring their planes and fleets near the South China Sea," Kang said. "Actually, I think this is behavior that has threatened the sovereignty of South China Sea countries."
Beijing has been endlessly incensed by the presence of the US Navy in what they consider to be their sovereign waters, and increases in tensions between the two powers have often been marked with increased military operations in the South China Sea.
In mid-October, the USS Chafee, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, sailed close to the Paracel Islands, some of which are home to Chinese military bases. US defense officials told Reuters that the mission was to challenge Beijing's "excessive maritime claims" in the region.