China is planning to build several nuclear power platforms that will be used to speed up its construction projects around islands it claims in the disputed South China Sea.
China has been building air strips and missile launch pads around islands in the disputed waters and has gone ahead with wide-scale construction and land reclamation work, rankling nerves in the neighborhood and raising concern from the US.
Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times said in a report on Friday the latest move will accentuate Beijing's construction projects in the South China Sea.
The report cites analysts saying the nuclear power platforms will play a key role in advancing China's long-term South China Sea strategy. The nuclear power platforms can set sail to remote areas when needed.
Experts have said the nuclear platforms will provide reliable power for defensive weapons and airports and harbors on islands in the South China Sea as well as help run civilian installations like lighthouses, seawater desalination plants and rescue and relief operations.
"Normally we have to burn oil or coal for power. Given the long distance between the Nansha Islands and the Chinese mainland and the changing weather and oceanic conditions, transporting fuel could be an issue, which is why developing the maritime nuclear power platform is of great significance," Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie told the Global Times.
China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), which designed and assembled the platforms, said it is "pushing forward the work," the newspaper reported.
The leading shipbuilder in the country, headquarters in Shanghai, will build about 20 nuclear power platforms in the future, the report said citing a shipbuilding industry website.
"The development of nuclear power platforms is a burgeoning trend," CSIC director Liu Zhengguo told Global Times.
"The exact number of plants to be built [by CSIC] depends on the market demand. Judging by various factors ... the demand is pretty strong," Liu added.
New marine nuclear reactor ACPR50S
The China Securities Journal had reported in January that the building of the country's first maritime nuclear power platform will be completed by 2018 and commissioned for use by 2019.
The CSIC is also partnering with China General Nuclear Power Corp in rolling out a small marine nuclear propulsion reactor that can be installed inside a ship. The 200-megawatt reactor called ACPR50S is expected to be commissioned by 2020.
The newspaper also reported that China's National Nuclear Safety Administration is in the process of formulating relevant nuclear security regulations regarding the naval nuclear platforms.
The US has taken a tough stance against China's effort to militaries South China Sea saying it threatens free passage in an area through which ship-borne trade worth $5 trillion passes every year.
Familiar verbal duel between China and the US over South China Sea took a turn for the worse recently when Beijing deployed missiles on an island in the Paracel island chain.
China did not deny weapons deployment on the island chain but asserted its sovereignty over the whole of South China Sea and criticised the US for engaging in sensationalism.
US has no territorial claims in the South China Sea but it sees China's land reclamation near the island chains of Paracel and Spratlys and the building of airstrips as attempts to militarise the region.
The dispute and strategic points
The overlapping claims of sovereignty over two island chains by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei has made the South China Seas a sensitive region. The United States has strategic interests in the region as well, and it offers a counter balance against Beijing's influence in the waters.
The US adopts a stern line against China's land reclamation, construction and militarisation in these islands but China staunchly defends its claim to sovereignty in the region.
The US too has US military facilities in Southeast Asia -- Philippines and Thailand. It also has stationed its Poseidon sub-hunters and electronic warfare platforms in Malaysia and Singapore.
The mostly uninhabited islands in South China Sea are of crucial strategic importance. The two major island chains -- the Paracels and the Spratlys -- are thought to harbour natural resources around them. China hopes the oil and natural gas reserves in the region could ensure its energy security.
The sea is also a major trading route through which ship-borne trade worth $5 trillion passes every year.
For energy hungry China the sea routes in South China Sea are crucial as most of its imported oil flows through these routes.
Control over the territory allows Beijing to prevent the US from expanding its sphere of influence in the region.