By Dr Andrew Erickson, Associate Professor at the US Naval War College,  and Research Intern Kevin Bond at the China Maritime Studies Institute, US Naval War College

China's burgeoning dredging fleet adds another piece to the country's 'Swiss Army Knife' of infrastructure developmental tools that are driving its controversial island building in the South China Sea. 

Long after the sediment settles in those formerly pristine waters, China's 'Maritime Silk Road' strategy and related economic diplomacy is poised to drive major dredging demand in the form of port construction and channel widening. This is part of a larger pattern in which Beijing is able to capitalise on a key strength: parlaying broad economic, industrial and technological development into advancement of specific, yet evolving, geostrategic goals: the protection of what China believes are its maritime rights in the South China Sea and the advancement of its Maritime Silk Road initiative.

Land reclamation in the South China Sea became a hot topic at the recent 48th ASEAN Foreign Minister's Meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Several countries, including normally-quiet Malaysia, refused to remain silent despite Chinese requests to not broach the sensitive issue. ASEAN went as far as to include 'land reclamations in the South China Sea' explicitly in the meetings' resulting communiqué.

The contentious issue of island building has strained China's relationships with its neighbours and the US, and while China has correctly noted that it is not alone in building new land in the Spratlys, the situation on the (newly-created) ground shows what can be accurately described as no contest. Where Vietnam has reclaimed 60 acres at one spot in five years, Malaysia 60 acres at one spot over 30 years, and Taiwan 5 acres at one spot over two years, China has effectively run away with the game, reclaiming nearly 3000 acres over the last 18 months.

These 'islands' did not simply appear at Beijing's whim. Their construction required the use of a large and impressive fleet of dredging ships that did not exist 15 years ago.

Starting in 2001, China made a conscious effort to expand and improve its then-poor-quality dredging fleet in a bid to both meet growing domestic demand for deeper waterways and ports (expected to hit 5–7.5 billion cubic meters a year by 2015) and to secure a place in the rapidly growing global dredging market. Through this investment, China managed to more than triple its annual dredging capacity from 300 million cubic meters in 2001 to over 1 billion cubic meters in 2009, becoming the world's biggest dredging country in terms of annual capacity.

China did not climb to the top of the dredging pyramid by simply having more ships than everyone else, but by building much larger and much more sophisticated dredgers. Between 2005 and 2012, China built 20 trailing suction hopper dredgers with hoppers of 9000m3 or larger. From 2004–2011, China launched at least 44 large cutter suction dredgers, including the world's third-largest self-propelled cutter suction dredger, Tianjing, in 2010.

China's announcement at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting that its reclamation activities in the South China Sea had halted came as little surprise, as Beijing had announced in June that it would finish reclamation work and move on to the next phase of construction. However, it does indicate that China's fleet of dredgers just became more readily available for their other intended purpose: helping to pave the Maritime Silk Road. 

China has invested heavily in port expansion and development throughout Southeast and South Asia. This includes over US$1 billion in Kuantan, Malaysia, to expand its port; the 2013 opening of a 2.4 million-container-a-year-capable terminal in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the reported berthing of a Chinese submarine there last year. Then there is the expansion of the port in Gwadar, Pakistan, which, when combined with other investments, is reportedly designed to allow for an overland oil route to Kashgar, China (impractical though that may be).

Besides keeping China's dredging fleet busy, these investments also tend to come with beneficial port operating contracts for Chinese state enterprises, including a 35-year terminal operating lease in Hambantota, Sri Lanka and a 40-year agreement in Gwadar

In the short span of a decade, China has thus created and deployed a fleet that is literally altering geography and leveraging broad economic, industrial and technological development to advance China's geostrategic goals. Such capability could also easily be leveraged to build an overseas naval base, or even simply to expand existing commercial ports to a large enough size as to host a PLA Navy ship for replenishment, thereby increasing the PLA Navy's far-seas capability. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user TA Joseph.