China has been feverishly piling sand onto reefs in the South China Sea for the past year, creating seven new islets in the region. It is straining geopolitical tensions that were already taut.
The speed and scale of China’s island-building spree have alarmed other countries with interests in the region. China announced in June that the creation of islands — moving sediment from the seafloor to a reef — would soon be completed. “The announcement marks a change in diplomatic tone, and indicates that China has reached its scheduled completion on several land reclamation projects and is now moving into the construction phase,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research group. So far China has built port facilities, military buildings and an airstrip on the islands. The installations bolster China’s foothold in the Spratly Islands, a disputed scattering of reefs and islands in the South China Sea more than 500 miles from the Chinese mainland.
The new islands allow China to harness a portion of the sea for its own use that has been relatively out of reach until now. Although there are significant fisheries and possible large oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea, China’s efforts serve more to fortify its territorial claims than to help it extract natural resources, Dr. Rapp-Hooper said. The islands are too small to support large military units but will enable sustained Chinese air and sea patrols of the area. The United States has reported spotting Chinese mobile artillery vehicles in the region, and the islands could allow China to exercise more control over fishing in the region.
The Chinese were relative latecomers to island building in the Spratly archipelago, and “strategically speaking, China is feeling left out,” said Sean O’Connor, principal imagery analyst for IHS Jane’s. Still, China’s island building has far outpaced similar efforts in the area, unsettling the United States, which sees about $1.2 trillion in annual bilateral trade go through the South China Sea. At the end of May, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter criticized China’s actions in the region.
Several reefs have been destroyed outright to serve as a foundation for new islands, and the process also causes extensive damage to the surrounding marine ecosystem. Frank Muller-Karger, professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida, said sediment “can wash back into the sea, forming plumes that can smother marine life and could be laced with heavy metals, oil and other chemicals from the ships and shore facilities being built.” Such plumes threaten the biologically diverse reefs throughout the Spratlys, which Dr. Muller-Karger said may have trouble surviving in sediment-laden water.
What Is on the Islands?
Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have all expanded islands in the Spratlys as well, but at nowhere near the same scale as China.
China’s reefs hosted smaller structures for years before the surge in construction. By preserving these initially isolated buildings, China can claim that it is merely expanding its earlier facilities, similar to what other countries have done elsewhere in the region.
China continues to expand islands at two locations, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef. It is unclear what structures will be built on the islands, though each will have straight portions long enough for airfields.