19 April 2019
China has been busy reclaiming land and building infrastructure on reefs in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP
China has been busy reclaiming land and building infrastructure on reefs in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

China’s building frenzy in the South China Sea

It’s not an engineering feat as extraordinary as the Great Wall, but China’s building frenzy in the South China Sea is impressive, nonetheless.

Where just a year ago were barren islets, cays and shoals are now entire islands with airstrips, helipads, harbors and facilities to support large numbers of troops.

To tip the operational balance of power in its favor, China has dredged millions of tons of rock and sand from the sea floor to form substantial new land on five different reefs in disputed waters around the Paracel and Spratly islands.

“We can see that this is a methodical, well-planned campaign to create a chain of air and sea capable fortresses across the center of the Spratly Islands chain,” James Hardy, Jane’s Defense Weekly Asia Pacific editor, told CNN.

The South China Sea is the subject of numerous rival territorial claims, with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam disputing sovereignty of several island chains and nearby waters.

To be sure, neighboring states and the United States have become increasingly alarmed, as have Asian maritime security affairs analysts who spoke recently with War on the Rocks, a web-based publication on war and foreign policy.

“Ongoing PRC land reclamation in the South China Sea, if left unchecked, could fundamentally alter the strategic dynamics in East Asia and beyond,” said Ely Ratner, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at The Heritage Foundation, said: “As China’s power has grown, its willingness to compromise about its territorial claims, whether Taiwan, the border with India, or the various islands in the South and East China Sea has declined.” 

And Shawn Brimley, executive vice-president and director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, said: “Whether it is China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) last year, its aggressive naval posturing, its use of oil drilling to sustain a contested presence, or building new islands, China clearly is contesting areas they feel are theirs, and are going so far as to create facts on new ground to do so.” 

Others note that it’s not all about establishing a military footprint to preserve what China views as its national integrity and territorial sovereignty.

“Just as it has already achieved in the nearby Paracel Islands, China hopes to establish numerous outposts in the Spratlys,” said Robert Haddick, an independent contractor at US Special Operations Command and author of Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific.

“After building hundreds of acres of land, China will be able to set up government offices, police garrisons, wharves, airports, tourist facilities, and housing for settlers. These facilities are traditional indicators of state authority and once permanently affixed in the South China Sea, they will bolster the basis of China’s sovereignty claim.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a Fellow in the Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out: “These new, tiny bases could be washed away by a typhoon and are vulnerable to attack, so they probably wouldn’t serve much of a wartime function, but they may well allow Beijing to ratchet up peacetime pressure.” 

Andrew Erickson, an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the Naval War College, said: “Even if China’s goals are more strategic than substantive, building won’t directly confer sovereignty. Law of the Sea doesn’t recognize feature ‘upgrading’, and [everyone] knows what Beijing started with.” 

From the American perspective, and that of China’s neighbors, the PRC appears intent upon establishing a new status quo over the South China Sea.

“But from Beijing’s perspective it is quite likely that they see themselves as far more the aggrieved than the aggressor,” said Cheng.

“As Chinese officials often point out, their construction comes after various other claimants, including Vietnam, have already been engaging in construction on their occupied shoals and reefs.”

New island fortresses add to an already substantial military presence in the South China Sea. China’s surface fleet and submarine assets, backed up by nearby ballistic missiles aimed at who knows what, have been in place since 2012.

With substantial natural resources at stake, China, from Beijing’s point of view, needs to defend its access to the fisheries, potential hydrocarbons and other mineral assets of the region.

It looks like they’re prepared to go the distance.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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