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. …

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.