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? 

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.