TAIPEI, TAIWAN —
Two American B-52 bombers flew over the South China Sea on a training mission Wednesday for the second time in 10 days, acts that Beijing considers provocative. Chinese officials resent any challenge to their hold over hundreds of the sea’s tiny islets, which other countries claim, too.
But China appears, at least for now, to be done adding positions in the sea that’s claimed in whole or in part by five other governments, maritime scholars agree. They say a seven-year effort to reclaim land for building on once uninhabitable atolls and reefs paused indefinitely two years ago because Beijing had reached the level of control it wanted over the waterway.
“The Chinese basically feel that they have finished what they called the first stage of land reclamation in the South China Sea,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
Island building that started around 2010 led to the construction of aircraft hangars, radar systems and facilities to support fishing and oil exploration. Civilian populations live on a few islets. China controls the whole 130-island Paracel chain and seven major features in the Spratly archipelago.
Chinese contractors created 3,200 acres of reclaimed land on the sea’s reefs and atolls to help develop them, according to a Pentagon estimate in 2016.
“If the end goal is de facto control of the waterways and air space, then perhaps the number of features that China currently occupies are enough to achieve that end goal,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or parts of the sea, which stretches from Hong Kong to the island of Borneo. Those governments prize the 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway for its fisheries, shipping lanes and energy reserves under the seabed.