Dredging Under the Radar: China Expands South Sea Foothold

August 26, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaSouth China SeaMilitary

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).