Reefer Madness: Why Is China on a Building Spree in the South China Sea?

Breakneck construction on disputed atolls has China’s neighbors -- and the United States -- worried about just what Beijing is up to in the world’s watery flash point.


China’s frantic construction activity on a series of disputed reefs in the South China Sea has set off alarm bells across the Pacific and in Washington, raising fears that Beijing is putting steel in the ground to back up its contentious claims to a big swath of one of the world’s key waterways.

Since last summer, China has been busy transforming underwater reefs hundreds of miles from its coastline into artificial islands. Dredging vessels have been sucking out sand to create land where none was found before, and China is building new installations on the islands, including possibly airstrips, barracks, and radar sites.

In recent months, Chinese work has accelerated on about half a dozen disputed bits of coral in the South China Sea, according to new surveillance photos published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, an arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The construction activity is just the latest chapter in a long-running conflict over the South China Sea that has pitted China against most of its maritime neighbors and has brought it into conflict with the United States and Japan. China’s push into the area seems designed to bolster Beijing’s claim to the resource-rich waters — which teem with fish and may hold plentiful reserves of oil and natural gas — and to increase China’s ability to project military force in an area traditionally dominated by the United States and its allies.

China has nominally claimed the South China Sea since the end of the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s — based on a map drawn by the communists’ Nationalist opponents — but Beijing has intensified its bid for outright control in the last few years under President Xi Jinping. Aggressive actions, such as the dispatch of an oil-drilling rig and scores of escort vessels to Vietnamese waters last year, sparked months of cat-and-mouse skirmishing. Chinese ships regularly spar with fishing vessels from other countries.

And now the reef-building frenzy is getting China’s neighbors nervous, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. A Philippine foreign affairs spokesman this week said his country is “seriously concerned” about Chinese activities.

At issue is whether China is entitled, as it claims, to nearly the entirety of the South China Sea, and whether the frenetic construction on the disputed features will end up trumping international law and changing the geopolitical face of a volatile region. Manila has sued China before an international tribunal over some of the disputed reefs, but Beijing has refused to litigate, attempting instead to browbeat neighbors with cranes and dredgers. China refused to allow the South China Sea disputes on the agenda of an upcoming meeting at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“If China is actually able to build working airfields and other installations on newly manufactured islands, it will be able to put steel behind its territorial claims,” said James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College.

The reef building has some in Washington and Tokyo alarmed that Beijing will be able to station Chinese air and naval forces right in the middle of a key shipping lane that sees about $5 trillion worth of commercial traffic a year.

U.S. officials are increasingly focused on the potential threat from creeping Chinese presence in the region. The Navy’s top officer said this week that he is considering stationing U.S. warships in Australia, in addition to several new warships slated to be deployed to Singapore beginning in 2017.

China’s reef building is “fueling greater anxiety within the region about China’s intentions amid concerns they may militarize outposts on disputed land features in the South China Sea,” said a State Department official who declined to be named in discussing the issue. The department has urged China and its neighbors to “avoid destabilizing activities.”

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is pressing the country to shed its post-World War II pacifism and embrace a more interventionist military role, in large part because of Chinese maritime aggression across the Western Pacific. Earlier this month, Japan said it is considering expanding its maritime patrols to the South China Sea.

And that underscores the risky nature of China’s maritime antics: They are raising the ire of countries across Asia, countries which for years had been drifting closer to Beijing’s orbit thanks to China’s massive economic growth.

In addition to Japan’s military muscle flexing, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam are all ramping up defense spending, especially on naval vessels to counter China’s growing fleet. Indonesian shipbuilders are for the first time preparing a fresh order for a foreign customer, the Philippine navy. Australia is deepening defense ties with the United States and Japan and adding new submarines and baby aircraft carriers to its fleet. Security analysts now talk about the need for the United States and Japan, in particular, to bolster their own military hold on the islands off China’s coast to contain the threat.

So why do it? China’s efforts to turn coral atolls into navy bases and airstrips may help it intimidate neighbors by making it easier to keep coast guard and other ships operating far from Chinese ports, said M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese maritime policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That could set the stage for a repeat of last summer’s water cannon war between Chinese and Vietnamese ships circling around the controversial drilling rig. That looks even more likely after China said this month that it had made a “large-scale” natural gas discovery in the South China Sea.

But the building frenzy may not pay the wider kinds of security dividends, such as those it has reaped in disputed waters in the East China Sea with the construction of an air-defense identification zone, or ADIZ.

“These outposts are unlikely to provide China with enough capability to create an ADIZ over the area,” Fravel said, due to low-lying radars and a dearth of nearby airstrips. What they could do is give China’s opponents a stationary target if things go horribly wrong.          “Militarily speaking, these outposts remain as vulnerable to attack, as they present fixed targets without substantial defensive capabilities,” Fravel said.

It’s also unlikely that turning a submerged obstacle into an artificial sandbox will change anything from a legal point of view; most international law scholars agree that modifying natural features does not bless them with fresh legal attributes. That matters because reefs and rocks don’t confer nearly as many territorial benefits on their owners as actual islands do.

Whether the construction activities bolster China’s legal arguments or not, they do create a prickly new reality on the ground, even as Washington continues to urge a diplomatic solution to the maritime disputes and claimants such as the Philippines await their day in court.

“If these states can’t successfully defend their claims, what will they do?” asked Holmes. “And if they can do nothing, over time the facts on the ground will harden into international custom, and maybe even into international law. And that would suit Beijing fine.”

Photo credit: AMTI/CSIS

Corrected, Feb. 20, 2015: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that the last word in the name of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative was “Institute.”

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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