09 September 2014

Fascinating Photos & Videos of Chinese Island Building in South China Sea from BBC

Be sure to view all the accompanying photos and videos. This is precisely the sort of substantive first-hand reporting that makes following BBC productions so worthwhile!

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, “China’s Island Factory,” BBC News, 9 September 2014.

New islands are being made in the disputed South China Sea by the might of the Chinese state. But a group of marooned Filipinos on a rusting wreck is trying to stand in the way. …

There is no land marked anywhere near here, only a submerged reef of the Spratly Island chain. But my eyes are not deceiving me. A few kilometres away I can now clearly see the outline of an island.

“What is this place called?” I ask our Filipino skipper.

“Gaven Reef,” he says. …

I know I have seen it, an island where there wasn’t one just a few weeks ago – even the skipper has never it seen before.

The captain turns the boat back to our old course – south, into the rain. We plough on. The waves are getting bigger. After four hours the rain begins to recede. Ahead I can see another island.

This one I am expecting. This place is called Johnson South Reef. On my GPS it again shows no land, just a submerged reef.

But I’ve seen aerial photographs of this place taken by the Philippine navy. They show the massive land reclamation work China has been doing here since January.

Millions of tonnes of rock and sand have been dredged up from the sea floor and pumped into the reef to form new land.

Along the new coastline I can see construction crews building a sea wall. There are cement-pumping trucks, cranes, large steel pipes, and the flash of welding torches.

On top of a white concrete blockhouse a soldier is standing looking back at us through binoculars.

I urge the skipper to get even closer, but a volley of flares erupts in the sky – it is a Chinese warning.

The appearance of these new islands has happened suddenly and is a dramatic new move in a longstanding territorial struggle in the South China Sea.

At the beginning of this year, the Chinese presence in the Spratly Islands consisted of a handful of outposts, a collection of concrete blockhouses perched atop coral atolls.

Now it is building substantial new islands on five different reefs.

We are the first Western journalists to have seen some of this construction with our own eyes and to have documented it on camera.

On one of these new islands, perhaps Johnson South Reef, China seems to be preparing to build an air base with a concrete runway long enough for fighter jets to take off and land.

Plans published on the website of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation are thought to show the proposed design.

China’s island building is aimed at addressing a serious deficit.

Other countries that claim large chunks of the South China Sea – Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia – all control real islands.

But China came very late to this party and missed out on all the good real estate.

Beijing only took control of Johnson South Reef in 1988 after a bloody battle with Vietnam that left 70 Vietnamese sailors dead. Hanoi has never forgiven Beijing.

Since then China has shied away from direct military confrontation.

But now Beijing has decided it is time to move, to assert its claim and to back it up by creating new facts on the ground – a string of island bases and an unsinkable aircraft carrier, right in the middle of the South China Sea. …


Further reading: Andrew Erickson and Austin StrangePandora’s Sandbox: China’s Island-Building Strategy in the South China Sea,” Foreign Affairs, 13 July 2014.

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 — literally expanding the territory under its control.