The phrase ‘game changer’ is often overused in international affairs. However, China’s terraforming in the Spratlys—transforming submerged or semi-submerged features and rocks into artificial islands—may well prove to be a genuine game changer in the long-running and increasingly contentious dispute.
Since mid-2013, China has been undertaking large-scale reclamation work on seven features under its control in the disputed Spratly Islands: Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef South, Cuarteron Reef, Hughes Reef, Gaven Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef. Extensive infrastructure is being constructed on the reclaimed features, including harbours, radar and surveillance systems, multi-storey buildings and airstrips. Once completed, these artificial islands will enable China’s navy, coast guard and air force to maintain a permanent presence in the Spratlys and strengthen Beijing’s ability to enforce its territorial and jurisdictional claims within the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ that covers approximately 80 per cent of the South China Sea.
Beijing has fiercely defended its reclamation activities on the grounds that it is acting within its sovereign rights, providing public goods and merely ‘catching up’ with the other claimants. However, the strategic implications of China’s terraforming has aroused considerable concern across the Asia-Pacific region. Ultimately China’s man-made islands are likely to fuel tensions with the other claimants, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, exacerbate the emerging strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing in Southeast Asia, and further call into question the South China Sea conflict management process between ASEAN and China.