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China’s Island Builders

The People’s War At Sea

Philippine Marines and a local television reporter gesture towards a Chinese Coast Guard vessel, which twice attempted to block a Philippine government supply ship from reaching the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea March 29, 2014. Erik De Castro / Reuters

Recent satellite images show that the Spratly islands, a series of features in the South China Sea, are growing at a staggering pace. Tons of sand, rocks, coral cuttings, and concrete are transforming miniscule Chinese-occupied outcroppings into sizeable islands with harbors, large multi-story buildings, airstrips, and other government facilities. The parties behind the construction and defense of these islands remain a thinly veiled secret. As China builds up its presence in the South China Sea, it is also greatly increasing its ability to monitor, bully, and even project force against its neighbors. In Machiavelli’s words, Beijing has decided that it is more important to be feared than loved—and that making progress before a new U.S. president pushes back is crucial to its regional aspirations.

FOLLOW THE TRAIL

Chinese strategy in the South China Sea may have many components, but it rests on the shoulders of one man:

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