In late 2013, Beijing started taking a very different approach to sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea — although few outside China noticed the change. Instead of directly confronting the other regional claimant states, Beijing began the rapid consolidation of, and construction on, the maritime features already under its control. And it did so on a scale and pace befitting China’s impressive engineering prowess.
Much of the outside world only realized this approach in early 2015, after several high-profile U.S. think tanks published high-resolution satellite images showing the extraordinary progress of China’s island construction, including military facilities and runways, which could extend Beijing’s military reach over the contested waters. This worried Southeast Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, because their claims to parts of the South China Sea overlap with China’s, and because they fear Beijing’s island construction threatens their security. It worries Washington as well: In May, the U.S. government vowed to assert freedom of navigation by sending military assets to Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea. And in late May, in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called for “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants” — in other words, China.
Intriguingly, half a month later, Beijing indicated that it would soon conclude its land reclamation projects in the South China Sea. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs even held a special press conference to deliver that message.