China is set to use a huge new supply transport ship to ferry supplies to natural and artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea. Named the Sansha No. 2, it can “cover the whole South China Sea”, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency. The ship passed tests in August.

With a displacement of over 8,000 metric tons (more than double the 2,540 metric tons of a ship that was used 11 years ago), the vessel can travel 6,000 km without refueling and can be used for both civilian and military work. The Sansha No. 2 ship is expected to take equipment to Paracel Islands, currently controlled by China, but claimed by Vietnam. It is also likely that it will take supplies to the more widely contested Spratly Islands.

So, what does this all mean? Jay Batongbacal, a professor at the University of the Philippines, says China is showing other countries what it can do.

He said, “They’re expanding their capabilities in all areas. Deploying in the disputed areas is even more symbolic. It’s also more important for them because they’re able to keep ahead.”

Andrew Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan said, “They have troops and operations stationed there, so they certainly need some kind of more capable logistical support systems.”

While the colossal vessel will certainly be an improvement on the logistics involved in moving large quantities of supplies, the signal of strength that it conveys to the world cannot be overlooked. Other countries in the South China Sea simply lack the ability to compete with China’s military and are far outnumbered in troops by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The U.S. Department of Defense thinks China plans to deploy floating nuclear power stations to supply power to the islands that it now controls and is actively building up militarily. The transport ship is simply the “latest technology” for China to accomplish this, according to Batongbacal.

south china sea Chinese structures are pictured at the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, April 21, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Five other governments lay claim to areas of the South China Sea that overlap with areas that China claims. The waters are rich with natural resources and are an important global supply route. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines have all expressed concerns about the Chinese military buildup but none of them have the military strength to resist.

Beijing has made overtures to the Philippines about a lucrative joint oil and gas exploration project with the potential to bring billions of Philippine pesos into its economy. A tempting offer, but that might just be a trap that would be giving China the approval to do as it pleases in any area regardless of any territorial claim.

The only real resistance to China is the United States, which began increasing the number of ship passages through the sea in 2017 under President Donald Trump to keep waterways open for international use.