China Continues to Flex in the South China Sea

China has aggressively stepped up its land reclamation and construction projects in the Spratly Islands, a prime area of territorial dispute within the South China Sea.

Activity has been ongoing in this region for some time, but until recently this chain consisted mostly of collections of rock outcroppings, small concrete platforms, and other equally insignificant structures.

Recent satellite imagery now shows that new “islands” are being built on reefs. Some of which are large enough to accommodate an airstrip as well as facilities for refueling, supplies, and communications. The most ambitious land reclamation projects are taking place on Gavins Reef and Johnson South Reef, in the Spratly Island chain.


Other efforts, such as runway expansion and harbor dredging, are also taking place on Woody Island in the Paracels, a group of islands much closer to both China and Vietnam.

Granted, other nations bordering the South China Sea have already built naval facilities on certain islands nearest to their coastlines in an effort to maintain their own strategic presence. But none have done so to the extent that China is doing.

These latest moves come just a few years after China announced its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) just north, in the East China Sea, as tension escalated over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute. The ADIZ overlaps parts of Japan and South Korea’s air defense zones, resulting in posturing for territorial sovereignty which mirrors what is now happening in the South China Sea.

By undertaking such large reclamation projects, China seems determined to create firmly established military posts on these newly created islets, regardless of the fact that they lie within territory also claimed (in part) by nearby Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This entire region is resource rich—oil, natural gas, and fishing—and is crucial for global shipping. In fact, the world’s second busiest shipping route goes right through here- connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean through the Straits of Malacca.

philippines shipping

So it comes as no surprise that for years this region has been the site of fierce dispute and even violent confrontations, particularly between China and both Vietnam and the Philippines. Last year, a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk near an oil rig being constructed by the Chinese in the Paracels, sparking intense anti-Chinese sentiment among the Vietnamese. There have also been ongoing incidents of intimidation against fisherman and Philippine ships in the Spratly Islands, some of which has been centered on this grounded ship on Second Thomas Shoal, which serves as an outpost for a small division of Philippine Marines.

Despite the ambiguity of its claims over the entirety of a region that other nearby nations only seek to control portions of, the middle kingdom continues to push its agenda of sovereignty by relying disproportionately on its military muscle and the construction of new “islands.” Most of the argument comes down to Beijing’s assertion that the entire region lies within historical territory which should somehow trump other definitions of where control lies in modern times.

China further asserts these claims based on the outdated “nine-dash line,” which encompasses the overwhelming majority of the South China Sea. This line originates from a map using eleven dashes to show territorial boundaries, created in 1947 by (what was at that time) the Republic of China (ROC). In 1953 the newly formed People’s Republic of China published a modified version of that map using nine dashes. This has been used on official maps of this region since then, such as one that was published and submitted to the United Nations in 2009. This line shows China’s territorial waters extending right up to the coast lines of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and (to a lesser extent) Vietnam. And yet, many of these waters are anywhere from 500 to 1,000 miles from China’s mainland.

While there is no crystal ball, it is easy to imagine that this region will continue to be a flashpoint of heated dispute and heightened military activity in the near future, as there is simply too much at stake for all involved. China’s unilateral decision making on rights to territory won’t be tolerated forever.