Pandora's Sandbox

China's Island-Building Strategy in the South China Sea

Vietnamese motorboats anchor at a partially submerged island in the Spratlys, April 18, 2010.
Vietnamese motorboats anchor at a partially submerged island in the Spratlys, April 18, 2010. (Courtesy Reuters)

Ongoing international disputes over territory in the South China Sea have led many to invoke an old adage: “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither is on your side, pound the table.” Beijing is using all these approaches simultaneously, but with an ambitious twist -- as it tells other claimants to pound sand, China is pouring it. 

A prominent case in point is a major reclamation project on the disputed 7.2-square kilometer (4.5-square mile) Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago. Photos taken since March 2012 document China’s creation of a 30-hectare (74-acre) island atop the previously submerged reef by dredging seabed material and then dumping it using pipelines and barges. In addition to a communications platform built after China wrestled the atoll from Vietnam in 1988 (killing 64 Vietnamese sailors in the process), over the last two years China appears to have set up additional radars, satellite communication equipment, anti-aircraft and naval guns, a helipad, a dock, and even a wind turbine. IHS Jane’s and other observers have pegged the reef as the potential home of China’s first airstrip in the Spratlys.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis