Meanwhile, observers believe China will land its first deployments of jet fighters onto its new runways in the Spratly Islands in the coming months.
The so-called magical island-maker was unveiled as Donald Trump started his East Asian tour. Around 80 per cent of the South China Sea is claimed by Beijing, intruding on what Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan regard as their waters.
The US is concerned China’s construction of islands and military build-up could be used to restrict free nautical movement and its ships have carried out freedom of navigation patrols in the area, raising tensions with Beijing.
The new vessel has the symbolic name of Tian Kun Hao, an enormous mythical fish which could turn into a bird.
At 140 metres, it is claimed to be the biggest ship in Asia and is far more powerful than the existing dredging fleet, capable of removing 6,000 cubic metres an hour, about three swimming pools, from 35 metres below the surface.
“There are many hard coral reefs on the sea floor of the South China Sea,” said Zhang Xiaofeng, chief engineer for the vessel, according to the Beijing Times. He added that the ship would be put into service some time in the first half of next year.
It dredges sand, mud or coral from the sea bed, sucks it up and sends it to as far as 15km from the ship to pile it up to form reclaimed land. Smaller ships have helped build islands in the disputed sea since 2013.
Beijing has batted off suggestions that it is increasing regional tensions.
“The South China Sea issue isn’t an issue between China and the United States,” China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told the media on Friday, adding there was no issue with freedom of navigation and that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over islands and surrounding waters.
In the Philippines, Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano has expressed alarm, saying the vessel “highly suggests its renewed determination to assert its interests in the South China Sea”.
He mentioned Chinese incursions and harassment of patrols near the Manila-controlled Pag-asa Island as “indications of its increasing assertiveness”.
International observers have also expressed concern.
“The significance of this is that it could be deployed to do further reclamation in the South China Sea,” said Alex Neill of IISS Asia.
“The one that’s really focussing people’s minds is Scarborough Shoal [near the Philippines]. It hasn’t been reclaimed but there were suggestions that it would be. The US though views Scarborough Shoal as a red line.”
Tian Kun Hao. Picture credit: YouTube