02 March 2015

China’s “Facts of Ground”: Putting Neighbors Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “China’s ‘Facts of Ground’: Putting Neighbors Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” War on the Rocks, 2 March 2015.

China didn’t open “Pandora’s Sandbox.” It isn’t the first claimant to transform reefs by padding them with sand. But China’s superior economic and military capacity enables it to outpace other claimants. It is rapidly building the greatest “sandcastles,” which support multiple military and paramilitary functions.

Beijing views Spratly and Paracel Islands augmentation as justified in “Chinese blue territory.” “China is entitled to these rights by law,” Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yujun declared on 29 January, “other nations have no right to gossip about them.” International concerns include: 1) China’s dredging sand and building conspicuously atop it; 2) its strategic opacity about building plans; 3) infrastructure’s potential to change the operational balance of power and Beijing’s claims; and 4) Beijing’s concurrent regional coercion, including deployment of an oil rig in Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone.

How do China’s sandcastles compare to those of other nations in the region?

South China Sea shoals boast rich sand deposits, but relocating substantial tonnage requires large-scale dredging through pipelines. The best tools: specialized dredgers. China’s Tianjing, Asia’s largest, can move over 100,000 cubic meters of sand per day. Tianjing fortified five Spratly Islands reefs in 2014. China’s Tianqi has dredged similarly in the Paracels. Vietnam, perhaps the second-most-prominent sand mover after China, has often pumped seawater through makeshift dams before pouring exposed sand, and lacks large specialized vessels. No contest.

How will China’s sand pouring withstand the sands of time? Narrow reefs require millions of tons to become stable “land.” Chinese reclamation faces challenges inherent in occupying highly strategic but vulnerable features. Salt spray corrodes any aircraft stationed. Typhoons complicate operations. Attack is far easier than defense. Still, to smaller neighbors, this looms large, given the sheer amount of resources and power China is investing in these tiny outposts.

Even if China’s goals are more strategic than substantive, building won’t directly confer sovereignty. Law of the Sea doesn’t recognize feature “upgrading,” and Washington knows what Beijing started with. Other claimants occupy features nearby; Vietnam reportedly over 29. China can continue to build, but cannot evict other states’ micro-installations without massive repercussions.

Considerable uncertainty over the ultimate extent to which China is altering the status quo makes it premature to liken South Sea island building to other historic Chinese geoengineering feats. The Great Wall and Grand Canal remain unequaled. But the real issue is Beijing’s relative capacity and lack of restraint in using it—restraint it demands of others’ legal activities, such as U.S. missile defense. Overshadowing its neighbors makes prospects of further Chinese island augmentation and the potential announcement of a South China Sea ADIZ particularly troubling.

Rigorous information collection and sharing are vital: U.S. surveillance flights represent a positive first step. But imagining that Beijing will change its behavior without others imposing concrete costs is to dream of castles in the sky. China’s recent response to a related State Department report: pound sand.

Andrew S. Erickson (@andrewserickson) is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the Naval War College. Austin M. Strange (@austinmstrange) is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at Harvard University.