China's Dredging In the South China Sea Created 2,900 Acres of New Islands

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

We’ve known for years that China’s military is spearheading one of the biggest land reclamation projects ever in the middle of the South China Sea. But a report from the Pentagon yesterday says that the project is far larger than previously thought: 2,900 acres of new land has been created—roughly tripling the size of the entire group of natural islands.

You’ve probably heard about this issue a lot this summer. The chain of islands, called the Spratly Group, are contested territory, and the construction has roiled the other countries laying claim to the territory, including the Philippines to Malaysia. Tensions have escalated over the past few months, as China stepped up its efforts to turn seven of the islands into usable land. In June, as international pressure to halt the construction work grew, the party’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying the work would be complete within the month.

It’s been tough to get a picture on exactly how much land has been reclaimed along this isolated chain of tiny islands. But a report published on the US Department of Defence website yesterday (PDF) gives us a number: As of May, China had only reclaimed 2,000 acres. In June, that number ballooned to 2,900 acres, or 4.5 square miles. That’s 900 acres of new land in a month—a little more than the size of Central Park:

By comparison, Vietnam has reclaimed a total of approximately 80 acres; Malaysia, 70 acres; the Philippines, 14 acres; and Taiwan, 8 acres. China has now reclaimed 17 times more land in 20 months than the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, accounting for approximately 95 percent of all reclaimed land in the Spratly Islands.

For perspective, the entire landmass of the natural Spratly Group is only 1.5 square miles, compared to 4.5 miles of newly-dredged land.

While territory-grabbing is pretty much as old as nation states themselves (older, actually), what’s so fascinating about this story is the scale of the technology that’s making this kind of development feasible. Right now, China and its competitors are using dredging machines to suck up sand from below the water line and deposit it on the existing sandy islands of the Spratly group. That’s a technique that’s been around for a long time in various forms, but rarely at this scale.

China's Dredging In the South China Sea Created 2,900 Acres of New Islands

Soon, dredging may not even be necessary. In 2014, China’s military planned to use floating docks to speed up the process of turning islands into usable bases. At a press conference attended by Popular Science last month, a company called Jidong Development Group announced plans to construct large floating infrastructure bases built for military use in the South China Sea. The largest of these floating platforms would displace about 1.5 million tonnes, in comparison to the current record-holder for the largest floating object ever built, Shell’s Prelude gas refinery, which displaces only 600,000 tonnes. Per PopSci:

The design though would allow the islands to scale much larger, by attaching more semi-submersible hull modules, just like Lego bricks. Despite the large size of the individual modules, the floating islands could be easily assembled in deep offshore waters by linking together modules transported by semi-submersible heavy lift ships from landbased shipyards.

That kind of technology, if it actually is developed, could have far-reaching applications outside of any country’s territorial claim-making. Just look to the Netherlands, a pioneer of both dredging and unconventional land reclamation, for examples of how modular docks can be used as a stand-in for solid land in areas where flooding or sea level rise threatens communities. Whatever the use, it seems inevitable that we’ll be hearing more about sea-borne construction tech over the next few decades.

Images: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe.

[PDF h/t Wall Street Journal; Popular Science]