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.


Chinese strategy in the South China Sea may have many components, but it rests on the shoulders of one man: President Xi Jinping. Since assuming office in 2012, Xi has directed the nation’s transformation into a “Great Maritime Power” capable of securing its offshore rights and interests, including its unresolved maritime claims in the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas.

To meet this goal, Xi has built up China’s already powerful navy, which is led by Admiral Wu Shengli, a hard-charging, now the longest serving commander in modern Chinese history. While it has grown far more qualitatively than quantitatively since modernization accelerated in the mid-1990s, China already has more attack submarines than the United States, many of which are focused on a much smaller area. In September 2014, Wu reportedly took a weeklong trip by naval ship to survey land reclamation projects on several disputed South China Sea islands, indicating that his interest in promoting Chinese activities expand beyond wartime preparedness to include peacetime activities in the nation’s adjacent waters. There, Wu also observed joint operations drills held on Fiery Cross Reef, which were meant to enhance and showcase China’s growing ability to field a variety of

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