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. 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.

China’s beach building is not limited to Johnson South Reef, which may, in fact, just be a warm-up act. Satellite images have confirmed similar dredging activities, albeit at a smaller scale, at three other structures in the Spratly archipelago: Cuateron Reef (the southernmost of China’s reclamation projects), Gaven Reef, and Johnson North Reef. But Chinese efforts center on Fiery Cross Reef. Beijing’s 1987 announcement that it would establish an “ocean observation station” there on behalf of UNESCO helped trigger the 1988 skirmish on nearby Johnson South Reef. It reportedly serves as a base for China’s reclamation efforts and already boasts an eight-square kilometer (five-square mile) artificial structure with a wharf, helipad, coastal artillery, and garrisoned marines. China, currently rumored to be in the process of adding an airstrip and enlarging the harbor

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