Machines behind Beijing’s island-building frenzy
Monster cutter suction dredgers enable Beijing to make islands quickly in the South China Sea using sand sucked up from nearby shoals
Beijing’s frenzied island-building in the South China Sea to give substance to its territorial claims has long been drawing ire from neighboring countries that also have possessions in the vast waters.
There have been assertions that Beijing’s aggressive endeavor to create new territory is like dumping money into the sea, as it has been estimated that the price of building a 5-square-kilometer island 3 meters above sea level is about 30 billion yuan (US$4.54 billion), considering the cost of conventional sea reclamation using caisson precast units as well as the shipping of rocks and sand from onshore.
In a paper carried in the August 2015 issue of National Interests magazine, Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the United States Naval War College, calculated that Beijing’s reclamation work had resulted in 2,900 acres (more than 1,100 hectares) of new land over a period of roughly 20 months, from early 2014 to August 2015. Meanwhile Vietnam has reclaimed 32 hectares, Malaysia 28, the Philippines 6, and Taiwan 3 over various lengths of time.
China has managed to create more than 17 times more land in 20 months than all of the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, accounting for 95% of all artificial land in the Spratlys, according to Erickson.
Beijing’s secret to such jaw-dropping speed and scale is its huge dredging fleet and a smart way of production, according to Xinhua.
The South China Sea is abound in reefs, enabling Chinese barges and cutter suction dredgers to suck up sand from shoals and transfer and pile sand on chosen locations on reefs for reclamation. This technique, known as hydraulic fill, is widely applied in Beijing’s island construction across the vast sea.
It is said that to expedite several ongoing projects, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has also refitted several amphibious vessels as work and living platforms for the tens of thousands of workers deployed in the middle of the South China Sea.
Beijing-based Reference News noted in a separate report that between September 2013 and June 2014, more than 10 million cubic meters of maritime fill, mainly consisting of sand, was used in reclamation projects.
The backbone of these projects is the army of monster cutter suction dredgers that are among the largest of their kind across the globe.
One of them, Sky Whale, measuring 127 meters in length and 23 meters in width, can excavate 4,500 cubic meters of sand per hour and deposit processed marine fill to a reclamation site as far as 6 kilometers away.
An even bigger cutter suction dredger, Tian Kun Hao, built by the state-owned China Communications Construction Company, will be officially christened and enter final tests this Friday.
The ship can excavate 6,000 cubic meters of sand per hour, Global Times reports, with more such dredgers to be built as demand for reclamation as well as dredging is rapidly rising.