22 February 2015

Sand Fight: China’s Island-Building Spree is About More Than Just Military Might

Gwynn Guilford, “Sand Fight: China’s Island-Building Spree is About More Than Just Military Might,” Quartz, 21 February 2015.

China’s playing Monopoly in the South China Sea—only, instead of building hotels on Pacific Avenue, it’s constructing helipads and, in some cases, whole new islands.

In less than a year, shallow reefs in the Spratly Islands have sprouted white-sand outcrops, sporting what look to be Chinese military facilities, according to satellite imagery published this week by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.… 

The new reclaimed islands are only the latest Spratly rockpiles and reefs that, since February 2014, China has willed into existence by heaping sand atop of them…

One of the military initiatives China’s likely to undertake once it’s done building the islands is to implement an air-identification zone (a.k.a. ADIZ), says Peter Dutton, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. But China’s Spratly ambitions likely go way beyond mere military might, he adds.

“It certainly also means supporting the fishing fleet, oil and natural-gas exploration, the ability to support law enforcement and coast guard, in addition to military activities,” says Dutton. “The islands being built up in the South China Seas really do present a major problem for other claimants in the region in that regard, because China simply outclasses them in every dimension of state power needed to reinforce [its claims].”

…Dutton is less concerned about the lack of evidence; he says the US compiled solid documentation prior to the Chinese reclamation. But he brings up another potential spur driving China’s South China Seas buildup. When Taiwan holds its presidential elections in January 2016, experts say the Kuomingtang Party, which traditionally favors closer relations with China, is likely to lose to much less pro-China Democratic Progressive Party.

“If you turn the map, there’s a very interesting, almost direct axis line between the islands China’s been reclaiming in Spratlys and Taiwan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands,” he says. “If I were a Taiwanese security planner, that would have caught my attention.”

For earlier analysis on this subject, see Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, Pandora’s Sandbox: China’s Island-Building Strategy in the South China Sea,” Foreign Affairs, 13 July 2014.