Island-building isn’t new. San Francisco built Treasure Island in the 1930s for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Miami’s exclusive Star Island was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers back in the 1920s. And of course there are more recent examples, such as Dubai’s infamous Palm Islands.
Now, China is fervently adding to that list at an unprecedented rate. For the past 18-plus months, China has been “reclaiming land” in the Spratly Islands, an island chain that consists of more than 200 identified reefs, atolls, islands, and islets in the South China Sea. A half-dozen nations make territorial claims over the strategically important area, and China’s island-building boom is widely seen as an attempt to tighten its control over the South China Sea. So far, China has completed the construction of five islands and continues work on two more.
So, what does it take to construct an island chain in the middle of the ocean? It involves massive dredging of sand and corals, dumping sand on top of submerged and partially submerged reefs, and constructing giant concrete seawalls to protect manmade structures. China is topping its fully “reclaimed” islands with helipads, airstrips, military support buildings, solar installations, wind turbines, concrete plants, and radar towers, while also adding on harbors, piers, and desalination pumps.
In other words, China is burying reefs under sand and concrete. This would be troubling in any context, but it’s especially worrisome in the Spratly Islands. The reefs there happen to represent one of the most ecologically significant marine environments in the world, providing habitat for diverse marine life, including endangered species and larvae of heavily depleted fisheries in the South China Sea.