China’s island-building spree is about more than just military might


China’s playing Monopoly in the South China Sea—only, instead of building hotels on Pacific Avenue, it’s constructing helipads and, in some cases, whole new islands.

In less than a year, shallow reefs in the Spratly Islands have sprouted white-sand outcrops, sporting what look to be Chinese military facilities, according to satellite imagery published this week by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a consulting company. The Spratlys are more strategic than they are substantial; under international law, the archipelago could have exclusive claim to the bounteous fishing grounds in the surrounding seas, and to the potentially oil-rich seabed—which may explain why China and five other Asian countries claim the islands.

The new reclaimed islands are only the latest Spratly rockpiles and reefs that, since February 2014, China has willed into existence by heaping sand atop of them–to the alarm among China’s neighbors.

Airbus Defence and Space satellite imagery shows the brisk clip at which China has turned Gaven Reefs into a helipad-supporting island.(IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly ©CNES 2015, Distribution DS/IHS: 1570064)

Military experts say China’s beefed-up reefs are aimed at enforcing sovereignty claims (paywall) to the waters. A US government report notes that the airstrip China recently built at the aptly named Mischief Reef would allow the People’s Liberation Army to vastly expand the reach of its air defense.

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