Why China’s Land Grab Is Backfiring on Beijing

Beijing is alarming its neighbors by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. From Tokyo to Jakarta, countries in the region are pushing back hard.

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Japan is jettisoning decades of World War II pacifism. Communist Vietnam is buying arms from the United States, its old enemy. The Philippines is inviting U.S. forces back 25 years after kicking them out. Even tiny Singapore is getting in on the action, allowing U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft to use bases on its territory.

The culprit? China, whose expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea are triggering a wary and at times angry response by neighbors from Tokyo to Jakarta. Alarmed at what they see as Beijing’s bid to dominate the strategic waterway, nations there are spending billions on ships, submarines, planes, and other military hardware and actively seeking closer defense ties with Washington and with each other.

That’s good news for the Obama administration, whose vaunted “rebalance to Asia” has been hampered by upheaval in the Middle East. Now, China’s land grab is rejuvenating the American effort, clearing the way for the United States to sell billions of advanced weaponry to China’s neighbors, while spending $250 million of its own money on new hardware like patrol ships, better surveillance, and communications gear.

Here is an interactive map that illustrates why so many countries are worried about China’s actions in the South China Sea. From Hainan Island just off the Chinese coast to militarized outposts in the Spratly and Paracel island groups, China has sketched a triangle of potential domination which could enable air defense zones, aggressive naval patrols, and radar and air defense stations.

This second interactive map shows what China’s neighbors are doing in response to Beijing’s land grab.

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

C.K. Hickey is Foreign Policy’s resident interactives and features designer, but you can call him CSS Wizard for short. A film studies major from Los Angeles, C.K. flirted with television as an FX Networks production intern until technology and journalism wooed him away. Prior to FP, he honed his writing and coding skills at Salon, Current TV, KQED, and the Virginian-Pilot. C.K.’s interactive documentary, The Town: Reckoning at Mammoth Lakes, won a Digital Storymakers Award from the Atavist in 2013, and he won four Virginia Press Association awards for features he produced at the Pilot. C.K. has worked at FP since 2015. When not developing projects like Global Thinkers, he’s probably cooking, playing his piano, hiking, or watching old movies. @seekayhickey

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s deputy editor for news. @KFJ_FP

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