The turbulent South China Sea (SCS) has emerged as a regional flashpoint, with sovereignty disputes over rocks and islands driving increasing tensions. Recently, a new twist to the saga has emerged, in the form of new artificial islands being created by China in an effort to bolster its sovereign claims.
While the other claimants in the region – Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia – are all in control of natural islands, China is the first to control the artificial variety. At the same time, Beijing is also trying to enlarge the existing islands that it already has under its control.
These news islands and enlargements are essentially new, and have the potential to intensify the disputes and the associated level of acrimony. One of the most noticeable changes that have occurred has been in the Spratly Islands. Until the beginning of 2014, the Chinese presence in these islands consisted of a handful of outposts that comprised a collection of concrete block-type houses perched atop coral atolls. Now, China is expanding most of these islands, rocks, and submerged reefs through landfill with sand dug from nearby reefs, which is being dumped to create new structures. After the landfill is completed, the existing minimal infrastructure is considerably upgraded. In some cases, the newer islands are being created from submerged reefs and shoals. Presently, activity is underway on five different reefs.
One of the primary areas of land reclamation and focus has been the Johnson South Reef. Historically this was the site of the deadly skirmish that was fought between China and Vietnam in 1988, leading to the loss of more than 70 Vietnamese lives, along with the sinking of two Vietnamese boats. Afterwards, China took possession of six features in the Spratly Islands. Fortunately, despite the considerable aggression in Chinese posturing in more recent years, there has as yet been no replay of those bloody events.