China officially began building an offshore floating nuclear power plant the country plans to place in the disputed South China Sea.
This plant and others like it are intended to power isolated locations in the South China Sea, according to a statement by the state-controlled China General Nuclear Power Corp. Foreign affairs experts see these nuclear plants as a way for China to cement its territorial claims.
Chinese officials also say floating reactors will “power offshore oil and gas drilling, island development” and provide electricity for desalination plants, according to the China Daily, a state-run English language newspaper that is often used as a guide to government policy.
The state-run Global Times reported in April that the floating reactors “could provide reliable power for … defensive weapons and airports and harbors on islands in the South China Sea.”
China has claimed more than 80 percent of the South China Sea. The U.S. worries China’s territorial expansion could hinder the $5 trillion of maritime trade that passes through the region each year. The area also has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
China has claimed sections of the South China Sea traditionally claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan. Chinese President Xi Jinping said the contested islands are in a region that historically belongs to China.
China has been building reef islands for several years, and some of these islands will ultimately host harbors and runways that are “up to military standards.”
An international tribunal, however, ruled in July there was no legal basis for Beijing’s maritime claims. State-run media previously claimed China would build 20 floating reactors in the region, but that report was promptly deleted from a government-controlled media account.
The U.S. military increasingly deploys to the South China Sea as part of the much discussed “pivot” to Asia — military aircraft have flown over the dispute artificial islands. Beijing has already angrily condemned these U.S. military missions designed to assert freedom of navigation close to the reclaimed islands. Washington says these islands lie in international waters and China’s actions violate international law. Despite military build up, America is still trying to respond to Chinese actions in the region without resorting to military force.
Other parts of China’s state-controlled media have previously claimed the floating reactors could “significantly boost the efficiency of the country’s construction work on islands in the South China Sea.” The first of the floating reactors could be operational as soon as 2019.
China is planning to double the amount of nuclear power it uses over the next five years. The country currently has 27 nuclear reactors in operation, with another 25 under construction, and plans to have up to 110 operating by 2030. China plans to have 150 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2030, enough power for 105 million homes, according to the World Nuclear Association.