China tests new dredger capable of South China Sea projects: state media

BEIJING (Reuters) - China is testing a new dredger ship that will greatly enhance its land reclamation capabilities, a state media report said on Sunday, as the country continues to develop facilities in the South China Sea in a bid to strengthen its claims in the waters.

State-run Beijing News newspaper said the Tian Kun began water tests on Friday. A cutter suction dredger is a type of a ship used for large-scale projects to create or reclaim land.

“For example, there are many hard coral reefs on the sea floor of the South China Sea,” the paper quoted Zhang Xiaofeng, chief engineer for the vessel, as saying, adding the ship will be put into service sometime in the first half of 2018.

Recent satellite images show that China has quietly undertaken more construction and reclamation in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, in a bid to strengthen its grip despite objections from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam as well as the United States.

Some experts say China will land its first deployments of jet fighters onto its runways in the Spratly islands in coming months.

The United States is concerned China’s construction of islands and military buildup in the waters could be used to restrict free nautical movement. Its ships have carried out freedom of navigation patrols in the area, angering China.

The subject could come up when Trump visits Beijing next week as part of his 12-day Asia trip and meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping, though North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests are expected to feature more prominently in talks.

“The South China Sea issue isn’t an issue between China and the United States,” China Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told reporters on Friday, adding there is no issue with freedom of navigation in the region and that China has indisputable sovereignty over islands and surrounding waters.

Reporting by Se Young Lee and Fang Cheng; Editing by Shri Navaratnam