Literally and Littorally, China Is Gaining Ground
New satellite photos show that China is gaining ground, literally, in the South China Sea. The images show Chinese workers dredging up huge amounts of sand from the seafloor and pumping it onto submerged coral reefs. The workers are then paving over the sand, transforming the coral into an artificial island. With every scoop of sand, the island grows larger.
Were this project happening in Chinese waters, it wouldn’t be controversial (except for environmental reasons). It would likely be seen as an operation similar to the Netherlands fighting back the sea with dikes and windmills, reclaiming land to increase the country’s landmass. Or it might be viewed as something like the United Arab Emirates creating massive artificial islands off its coasts. But the site of the Chinese project is Mischief Reef. That’s 800 miles from China, but only 150 miles from the Philippines. China claims ownership of Mischief, but according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it belongs to the Philippines. It falls well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
“It’s a major or critical concern,” said Philippine Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Galvez on April 9. “They have to dismantle it. It’s a concern not only for our country and region, but for the whole international community.”
More Than Mischief
Mischief Reef isn’t the only place where China is creating artificial land. China claims ownership of about 90 percent of the vast South China Sea and is also reclaiming land on six other disputed reefs. So far, Beijing has created more than 1.5 square miles of landmass on the reefs. And the operations are increasing, both in pace and scale.
On the new islands, China is building fuel storage facilities, ports, surveillance posts and airstrips. Many experts are convinced that China’s intentions are to militarize the islands, which would enhance China’s ability to project power in the region.
James Hardy of ihs Jane’s Defense Weekly said: “We can see that this is a methodical, well-planned campaign to create a chain of air and sea capable fortresses across the center of the Spratly Islands chain.”
China’s illegal operations present a difficulty for the United States. That’s not just because the Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally, but also because Beijing is building the islands very rapidly. At the current pace, Beijing’s claim of owning the South China Sea could become reality before anything can be done to challenge it.
Yet every indication shows that U.S. President Barack Obama is unwilling to confront the Chinese activity with anything beyond the gentlest rhetoric. Last week, he said that by developing the islands, China “is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” Not necessarily? Such statements provide no comfort to the Philippines and other smaller Asian nations. But the idea of being drawn into a conflict with China is nearly too unbearable for Washington to contemplate. So the most the Obama administration will do is to gingerly chide Beijing, and look the other way.
The Chinese leadership knows that as long as Mr. Obama is in power, U.S. involvement in the matter is unlikely to go beyond light-handed statements. This fuels China’s increasingly provocative behavior. Approximately 21 months remain of President Obama’s second term. China knows that for the next 21 months, it is unlikely that anyone will challenge its illegal and pushy maneuvers in the South China Sea.
For more, read “Will China Call America’s Military Bluff?”