Beijing’s new land-reclamation strategy in the South China Sea has been ringing alarm bells in the region and has prompted the U.S. to accuse China of attempting to force its way to de facto control of disputed waters.
Several high-definition satellite images surfaced this month of China’s land reclamation and construction on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, whose sovereignty is disputed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., has released several photos chronicling Beijing’s rapid expansion of and infrastructure construction on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and several other reefs in the Spratlys. The Philippines and Vietnam, two of the most outspoken claimants in the South China Sea, have blasted Chinese land-reclamation activities as a tantamount to the creation of military outposts. Beijing has retorted that the moves fall in line with safeguarding its sovereignty.
When asked earlier this month about the island construction, President Barack Obama said, “Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, put the matter more bluntly, remarking that China “is creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers.”
China’s land reclamation projects are likely to continue over the coming months, creating worries about military plans. The projects could permit Beijing to utilize more tools to push its influence in the South China Sea, such as long-range radar, advanced missile systems and eventually aircraft. The Chinese appear to be constructing an airfield on the disputed Fiery Cross Reef despite protests from Washington, its allies and partners. This could be the advance that would enable Beijing to assert its control in the skies around the disputed sea.