Less is heard these days about China’s massive terraforming operations in the South China Sea, which not long ago exercised neighbours as well as the United States. But that does not mean China is any less assertive in the 1.4m square-mile (3.5m square-km) sea which, on the flimsiest grounds, it claims pretty much in its entirety. On the contrary, China seems to think its artificial islands allow it to open a new phase of self-assertion in the face of the South-East Asian countries with overlapping claims in the sea.
Starting in 2013 seven artificial islands sprouted around distant reefs that China controlled. Other countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan, have also reclaimed land from the South China Sea for airstrips and bases. But the scale of China’s efforts dwarfs theirs. President Xi Jinping swore that China’s operations served only the common good, an assertion undermined by the immense ecological damage of the construction, and by the subsequent installation of missiles, military radar and reinforced bunkers for warplanes.