Dredging Under the Radar: China Expands South Sea Foothold

The growth of China’s dredging industry so far has been impressive, more than tripling capacity and going from fifth to first globally in ten years. Why make such a move? 

Venturing ever further from the rivers and coasts that it helped develop in the first three decades of China’s post-Mao reforms, China’s burgeoning dredging fleet has not only excavated new land in the South China Sea, but has also given China a big new shovel to break ground on the seaward vector of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the “Maritime Silk Road.” Even after China finishes constructing new “islands,” its dredgers stand ready to support port construction and channel widening along its strengthening Silk Road. China’s rapid rise to the forefront of world dredging exemplifies its ability to leverage its broad economic and technological achievements into the advancement of the country’s strategic goals.

In June 2015, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang revealed that a large portion of China’s land reclamation work in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago would be completed soon, presumably timed in part to smooth the way for Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington in September. Lu also revealed that once land reclamation work was completed, China would begin constructing facilities related to satisfying the military and civilian functions of these newly crafted man-made islands, including disaster relief, search and rescue, weather observation, environmental protection, sea-lane security, and fisheries services. While China announced on August 11 that reclamation had halted in the area, it has also rejected U.S. proposals for a construction halt, calling it unfeasible and reiterating that “the South China Sea islands are China’s territory.” Recent construction has massively augmented seven locations: Johnson South, Gaven, Hughes, Cuarteron, Mischief, Fiery Cross, and Subi Reefs. Zhao acknowledged that “necessary defense facilities” would emerge as part of the next development phase.

Beijing’s South China Sea land reclamation work has reportedly resulted in 2900 acres of land reclaimed over a period of roughly 20 months, from early 2014 to August 2015. Here, perspective is important: of the other countries to reclaim land in the South China Sea, Vietnam has reclaimed 80 acres, Malaysia has reclaimed 70, the Philippines has reclaimed 14, and Taiwan has reclaimed approximately eight over various length 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. The scale of China’s land reclamation has alarmed both fellow claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines as well as Asia-Pacific actors like the United States, with the predominant American concern being that China will inhibit freedom of navigation, and freedom of the seas as traditionally understood, in the strategically significant South China Sea. This concern appears well-founded: Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua recently stated that there is “no freedom of navigation for warships and airplanes.” This friction generated divisions over a collective statement following the recent ASEAN foreign minister’s meeting, with the Philippines and Vietnam pushing against Beijing-supporters Cambodia and Laos in advocating for a stronger statement. The main driving force of China’s reclamation has been a fleet of new dredgers, including the technologically advanced self-propelled cutter-suction dredger (CSD) Tianjing, which is capable of dredging and reclaiming land at a rate of 4,500m3 an hour. These dredgers simply did not exist 15 years ago, yet now China can deploy dozens of them simultaneously in the South China Sea.

Once again, China’s rapid development has enabled it to muster a level of effort that smaller neighbors simply cannot match, even collectively, permanently altering geography in the Spratlys. Do you have a need to create over 2,000 football fields’ worth of new land in the course of a year and a half? If you’re China, there’s a ship for that. Well, actually, there are many ships for that. They spring from sizable, directed investments into the Chinese dredging industry that have seen China’s dredging capacity more than triple in the past fifteen years and given China a valuable new tool for building not only islands in the South China Sea, but also much of the port infrastructure needed for its Maritime Silk Road.

Bulking Up Domestic Dredging: Bigger is Better:

While China acknowledged the need for inland dredging and port expansion in its 8th and 9th five year plans in the 1990s, major expansion of China’s seagoing domestic dredging capacity began at the outset of the 10th five year plan (2001-05). In 2001, according to the International Association of Dredging Companies (IADC), China’s dredging capacity ranked roughly 5th-6th in the world with an annual dredging volume of 300 million cubic meters, about on par with the United States. However, this relatively-high ranking remained somewhat misleading. First, China’s commerce-choked coastline and silty rivers create larger domestic demand than most countries’. Second, and most importantly, China’s dredging fleet then was largely poor-quality.

Of China’s dredgers at the turn of the century, ~70% were either obsolete or soon would be. Moreover, the dredgers that China did have or could make were significantly smaller than those that other countries, especially the Netherlands, could manufacture. To this day, the vast majority of China’s dredging capacity is split between two types of ships: trailing suction hopper dredgers (TSHDs) and cutter-suction dredgers (CSDs). Both are optimized for excavation, but the latter can handle harder materials. For trailing suction hopper dredges (TSHDs), the largest ships China had were a few imported Japanese and Dutch ships with 6,000m3 hoppers; Chinese shipbuilders could only independently design and produce small TSHDs with a max hopper size of 4,500m3. China’s largest domestically designed and built CSDs at the time could not exceed 2,000m3/hour, relying on imported products for anything greater. By contrast, in 2000 the Dutch company, Van De Nul, completed construction on a TSHD with a hopper capacity of 33,000m3, more than six times China’s largest domestic model. In 2003, the same company launched the Jan de Nul, a self-propelled CSD that remains the world’s most powerful dredger with 27,500kW total installed power.

According to Hou Xiaoming, a high-level engineer at CCCC Shanghai Dredging Company Ltd (CCCC Shanghai), global dredging registered an initial “golden decade” in the 1990’s, when Hong Kong airport expansion required the work of 16 of the world’s 18 largest TSHDs simultaneously. A second “golden decade” followed with the construction of the Palm Islands in Dubai and the expansion of the Panama Canal. Global dredging market growth, combined with domestic need to expand ports so that they could continue to accommodate constantly-expanding container ships, prompted Chinese recognition that domestic dredging needed comprehensive overhaul. Accordingly, massive technological and financial investments focused on the two main workhorses of modern dredging fleets, TSHDs and CSDs.

Trailing Hopper Suction Dredgers (TSHDs):

Investment in new dredging technologies greatly increased as China sought to close the technological gap with leading dredging countries. The first result of this investment was the import of three foreign TSHD’s: Xin Hailong, Tongtan, and Wanqingsha, all with 12,888m3 hoppers. That same year, CCCC Shanghai also devised a plan to refit old bulk freighters, converting them into TSHDs, a process termed “huogaiba” (货改耙). China’s Xin Haixiang and Xin Haijing were the first of these refitted ships to be completed, and the program produced about seven 10,000m3-class TSHDs. China’s development of technology related to the improvement of dredging techniques improved concurrently, with China deploying its own “intelligent dredge monitoring system” (智能化疏浚监控系统) in 2006, which improved dredging efficiency by roughly 18-36%.

Within several years, China had already increased its domestic TSHD-building technology and capacity considerably, and in 2010 completed construction on the 18,343m3 Tongcheng, which is also capable of dredging in up to 85m of water. Largely based on Tongcheng’s design, China’s Tongtu launched in 2012, bringing China’s domestic TSHD size record to 20,000 cubic meters. Between 2005 and 2012, China produced at least 20 TSHDs with hopper sizes of 9,000m3 or more.

However, a significant technological gap still remains between Chinese dredgers, which tend to be heavier and therefore less efficient; and leading foreign dredgers, which have continually expanded to include a 46,000m3 TSHD developed by Jan de Nul. China is making gradual inroads into the global dredging market, though, with one example being the 2012 development and export of the smaller CSD, Xin Hangjun-02, to Iraq.

Cutter-suction Dredgers (CSDs):

China has also greatly expanded its fleet of cutter-suction dredgers (CSDs), rapidly advancing its domestic technological knowhow regarding their construction and development. The vast majority of these ships, by far, were the result of cooperation between China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU/上海交通大学)’s ship design program, with few exceptions. In 2002, CCCC Shanghai approached SJTU to build China’s first domestically-designed large CSD. At the time, European companies dominated the global open dredging market, and still do with 90% of the global open market share in 2012 (several large markets, most notably the U.S. and China’s, are closed for foreign competition). These companies would only sell complete ships to China, not plans or other technology, leaving China on its own. Hangjiao 2001, China’s first large CSD and capable of dredging at speeds of around 3,500m3/h, was completed in 2004. Hangjiao 2001 was followed two years later with Duojun, another large CSD but this time utilizing China’s first domestically-designed underwater (ladder) pump (水下泵), and Tianshi, the first to use a Chinese designed shallow-water spud carriage system (浅水倒桩钢桩台车).

These three ships represented initial steps in the technological advancement of China’s dredger-building industry, and were quickly followed by larger, more sophisticated ships. In 2009, China launched Yuda-01, which represented a considerable increase in the power and sophistication of Chinese CSDs. The 114m long ship, capable of dredging at a depth of 28m, boasts a total installed power of 19,450kW and was China’s first domestically-designed-and-built CSD able to dredge at 4,500m3/hour, placing it among the world’s most capable.

Later in 2009, China also launched sister ships, Tianqi and Tianlin, collectively Asia’s largest stationary CSDs. Commissioned by CCCC, they had been designed by SJTU in 2007. In addition to relying on variable frequency electricity to drive everything but the main pumps, both ships boast a travelling deck crane, 20,600kW in total installed power (2,000kW of power at the cutter-head), and a maximum dredging depth of 25m.

While these advancements are impressive, especially considering the compressed time frame and the baseline state of China’s dredger fleet in the early 2000s, China’s largest accomplishment in dredge-building came in 2010, with the launching of Tianjing, China’s first self-propelled CSD, and also Asia’s largest self-propelled CSD and the world’s third largest. This 120m-long ship can dredge up to 4,500m3/h, more than 100,000m3 of material a day, at a maximum depth of 30m, and travel at speeds of up to 12 knots. Tianjing also boasts a total installed power of 25,760kW. However, while the large CSD certainly represents a Chinese technological breakthrough, it was not solely the product of Chinese design, but rather the cooperative efforts of SJTU and Vosta LMG, a German company that also built the Ursa, a 115m long self-propelled CSD.

CSDs, the CCCC, and the Sea:

By 2008, China’s development of large dredgers combined with its output of small and medium-sized dredgers to bring the country’s annual dredging capacity to 900 million cubic meters, over thrice its 2001 figure. In 2009, this capacity surpassed 1 billion cubic meters.

China’s dredging industry is also heavily centralized. Of this billion cubic meter capacity, over half of it is owned by China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), a state-owned enterprise created through the merger of China Harbor Engineering Construction Group and China Road and Bridge Group in 2006. CCCC is the world’s second largest dredging company in terms of total capacity and total installed power, with dredgers and construction projects ongoing both domestically in areas such as Tianjin and Guangzhou as well as internationally in Asia, Africa, and South America. Of the remaining dredging capacity, 200 million cubic meters is collectively held by Yangzi River Waterways Bureau (长江航道局) and China Water Conservancy and Hydropower Group (中国水利水电集团), with the remaining 300 million belonging to smaller companies.

CCCC’s dredging operations are split into three subsidiary companies, CCCC Tianjin, CCCC Shanghai, and CCCC Guangzhou, with a majority of the larger CSDs, including Tianjing, Tianqi and Tianlin, operated by CCCC Tianjin. CCCC Tianjin and CCCC Shanghai each have almost 100 years’ dredging experience. China Harbor Engineering Company Ltd. (CHEC) still functions as a subsidiary of CCCC and has its own fleet of dredgers in addition to other infrastructure tools, taking both domestic and international contracts.

In addition to the ships’ ownership being heavily centralized, their design and development has likewise mainly occurred in two different organizations, Shanghai 708 Research Institute of China State Shipbuilding Corporation Shanghai (中国船舶工业集团公司第708研究所, 上海) and SJTU. The majority, if not all, of China’s large TSHDs have been designed by the 708 Research Institute. This includes the aforementioned 18,343m3 Tongcheng and 2012’s 20,000m3 Tongtu.

Meanwhile, SJTU has designed (independently or jointly) all of China’s notable large CSDs, from Hangjiao 2001 through Tianjing. According to Tan Jiahua, a SJTU professor and leader of a ship designing team there, since first being approached by CCCC Shanghai in 2002, SJTU has designed 48 large CSDs, of which 44 have been built, adding nearly 700 million cubic meters of annual dredging capacity.

Rising to the Top of the Dredging Industry Heap:

The growth of China’s dredging industry so far has been impressive, more than tripling capacity and going from fifth to first globally (in aggregate capacity) in ten years (2000-10). In contrast to the early days of China’s dredger-building, when several of the pumps, motors, and other parts to outfit the dredgers required importation, China has also improved its ability to produce the more sophisticated aspects of these ships in-house, with Xin Hangjun-02 only relying on imports for its main engines and power converter.

In addition to reducing import reliance, China has also practically eliminated its dependence on foreign designs, with only Tianjing requiring a foreign company’s assistance. Even this obstacle appears to have been overcome, with Wuchuan Shipbuilding (武船重工) in Wuchang receiving a contract for a 2,000m3/h self-propelled CSD in 2015. Even though this dredger is significantly less powerful than Tianjing, it shows that China has the ability to design and build a medium-sized self-propelled CSD domestically.

China is also trying to close the gap on “mega-TSHDs” of 30,000m3+, exploring the potential for a Chinese-built TSHD in engineering periodicals and conducting research on structural design. Hou Xiaoming has expressed aspiration to acquire funding for the construction of one by 2016. Domestic production of a useful dredging simulator to assist in crew training has also registered progress, with a sophisticated simulator based on the Xinhai’ou dredger completed in 2010.

However, despite accounting for nearly a third of turnover in the global dredging market in both 2012 and 2013, significant gaps persist between China and the four main dredging companies: Dutch companies Van Oord and Boskalis and Belgian companies Jan de Nul and DEME. These four companies, as of 2012, control ~60% of the global dredging market. They still possess a competitive edge over China in terms of equipment, technology, and name recognition.

Accordingly, China has only managed to gain market share in Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, as well as in China’s own considerable domestic market. The country’s relatively cheap production costs for dredgers, about half other countries’, means that China can best market its abilities to developing countries and is poised to increase global market share by competing on the “China price.”    

And China’s development of dredgers shows no signs of slowing, as demonstrated by the development of a mega-TSHD. For the next few years, China’s own domestic demand should be able to drive its dredging buildup, estimated to have reached 5-7.5 billion cubic meters per year sometime between 2006-15. Beyond domestic waterways and harbors, moreover, the South China Sea and Indian Ocean beckon.

Churning Ahead: South China Sea Today, Maritime Silk Road Tomorrow:

While its effects are suddenly being felt today, Beijing’s dredging fleet did not simply spring from nowhere. As in so many other areas, China started from a low baseline, but rapidly and methodically built capacity to international levels, with a scale and sophistication that its smaller neighbors simply cannot match, even collectively.

Over the past fifteen years, China’s dredging industry has undergone a massive overhaul, expanding its annual dredging capacity to over thrice its 2001 levels and breaking through technological barriers at a breakneck speed on its way to developing super-dredgers like Tianjing. In the process, China increased its global share of the dredging trade, reduced its reliance on foreign companies for its domestic port and waterway maintenance needs, and improved its domestic shipbuilding technology.

China has also created a fleet capable of literally altering geography, creating “islands” in the span of eighteen months where before there were only reefs and shoals. Beijing has also added another tool in its arsenal of economic incentives to offer to countries in an attempt to build the Maritime Silk Road. However, while the main thrust of China’s investment and incentives appears aimed at strengthening China’s economy, image, and diplomatic influence, the expansion of China’s dredging industry has also proved directed towards more than economic development alone. The rapid construction of the islands shows that these ships served a geopolitical purpose. Growing use of port expansion to increase influence likewise suggests that China is using dredgers as part of its diplomacy.

China’s ability to change geography so quickly should not be ignored, especially as China works to develop a Far Seas-capable navy and, potentially, its first overseas military support facility in Djibouti. Should China actually construct its first overseas facility in Djibouti, it is possible that other recipients of Chinese aid could host Chinese naval vessels, affording Beijing greater influence and reach. The ability to completely alter the coastline and maritime features removes previous limits on where Chinese ships can navigate, dock, and resupply.

With dredging, China has proven that it is capable of mustering a difficult-to-match effort when it comes to rapidly modernizing specific industries when it perceives a need, and especially at immediately leveraging that development in order to further its foreign policy.          

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and an associate in research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

Kevin Bond is a research intern at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College.

Image: Flickr/[email protected]