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China’s New Transport Ship Will Help Fortify Islands in Disputed Sea

In this Monday, May 11, 2015, file photo, This aerial photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China's alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

A new large supply transport ship will help the Beijing government ferry supplies to its holdings in the disputed South China Sea, a resource-rich waterway contested by other countries.

China has alarmed the other countries since 2010 by landfilling small islets for military use. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines contest all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea with China. China claims about 90% of it.

The Sansha No. 2 transport ship that passed trial in August can “cover the whole South China Sea,” Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency reports. The vessel with a displacement of over 8,000 metric tons will help civilian and military work, Xinhua says.

The ship will help take equipment to the sea’s Paracel Islands – controlled by China but hotly disputed by Vietnam – and possibly further to the more widely contested Spratly Islands, analysts predict.

“They’re expanding their capabilities in all areas,” said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines. “Deploying in the disputed areas is even more symbolic. It’s also more important for them, because they’re able to keep ahead of the rest of the region.”

Extra-large ship

China’s second transport ship in its class, and one with an especially large displacement, will probably take ammunition, food, water, and power generation gear to the islets it now controls, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan.

The newest ship will “increase logistics support” for troops stationed on the islets, Yang said. “They have troops and operations stationed there, so they certainly need some kind of more capable logistical support systems,” he said.

The tropical sea stretches from Hong Kong south to Borneo. The six claimants prize it for fisheries, energy reserves and marine shipping lanes.

Sansha No. 2’s late August trial run took it to Woody Island in the Paracel chain. The ship can go 6,000 kilometers without refueling and carry up to 400 people, Xinhua says.

China operates a military runway on Woody Island and keeps troops there. A transport that went into use on the island 11 years ago could carry just 2,540 metric tons.

On three major islets in the Spratly chain, China has built runways and military aircraft hangars, according to an initiative under U.S. think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Unique advance for China

Other countries with South China Sea claims lack China’s military power or technology. The People’s Liberation Army, the world’s third largest, flew bombers to the Spratly Islands last year. China plans to deploy floating nuclear power stations to the sea in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

The transport ship marks the “latest technology” for China, Batongbacal said. China will probably produce more vessels of the same type to set up a rotation, Yang forecast.

The builder of Sansha No. 2 and its predecessor Sansha No. 1 plans to work on a third transport vessel “to provide better service to personnel stationed on islands”, Xinhua says.

Taiwan sometimes sends a transport to the Spratly chain, Yang said. Taiwan, however, has just one major holding in that archipelago.

Vietnam’s navy operates transport vessels but uses smaller fishing boats for South China Sea transport jobs, said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. China could disrupt resupply missions handled by smaller vessels, he said.

“The issue here is more about whether the other claimants can resupply their garrisons uninterrupted the way the Chinese will enjoy in the South China Sea,” Koh said.

The United States, China’s former Cold War foe and a modern-day economic rival, began increasing the number of ship passages through the South China Sea in 2017 under U.S. President Donald Trump. Washington does not claim the waterway but believes it should be open for international use.