How China is Making Tiny Islands Inhabitable With Huge Floating Docks

By Sarah Zhang on at

The Spratly Islands are basically mounds of sand in the middle of the South China Sea, some of them barely tall enough to reach above the water. But China is hell-bent on making them inhabitable, even drawing up plans for floating energy and water plants. It has nothing to do with the islands themselves and everything to do with the water around it.

The South China Sea is one of the most disputed areas of the world, with China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia all claiming various chunks of it. The sea encompasses valuable shipping routes into Asia and holds vast amounts of untapped oil and gas reserves. You bet China wants a share of that.

But there's a problem for China, which is that the islands it controls are not real islands long inhabited by people. They're more like sandy atolls. That hasn't stopped China though, which come up with creative ways to bolster their islands. They're dumping sand onto reefs to create new islands and building a military base right in the middle of it all.

But to sustain a military base there, you need people, and you need to somehow make these barren islands inhabitable. That's where the floating docks come in. Reporting from the Shiptec China 2014 exhibition, IHS Jane 360 has the details on the floating docks.

Two variants are under development. A base unit consists of a towed multifunctional platform and a bridge. [China Ship Scientific Research Center] said the platform can support the following capabilities: docking for 1,000-tonne ships, maintenance and repair stations for fishing vessels, an electric-power plant, fresh-water storage and supply, desalination of seawater, rainwater collection, and general storage of equipment and supplies.

A second platform variant is based on a semisubmersible vessel that can move under its own power, but not over long distances. The platform can be used for light construction and maintenance of an island, such as heightening sandbanks or removing reefs. CSSRC lists its additional capabilities as temporary living quarters for construction crews, and waste water treatment. The bridge is strong enough to carry a 10-tonne lorry.

With floating docks in place, China could potentially settle the small islands much more quickly, giving them a stronger claim to the disputed waters. As China sees it, if life doesn't hand you islands, then you just have to build your own. [IHN Jane's 360 via Popular Science]

Top image: Spratly Islands. NASA/Wikimedia Commons