Some analysts argue that China’s new artificial land formations in the South China Sea are not worth worrying about as they could be easily “taken out” if war broke out. But those who take that view are failing to see how these islands fit into China’s slow motion strategy to achieve regional hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.
Since the United States and others throughout the region seek to maximize cooperation with a reemerging China while minimizing conflict, we are caught between a rock and a hard place with respect to brash acts of forcefulness such as the creation of artificial islands. China is well on its way to doubling the preexisting land mass in the South China Sea, seeking to make its ambiguous nine-dashed line claim to most of the sea—– which, in its most expansive forms, the U.S. government has stated has no basis in international law—a de facto reality. Beijing also refuses to participate in the current case lodged by the Philippines before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, thereby calling into question China’s interest in abiding by international law. Australian academic Alan Dupont describes what China is trying to do as terraforming its way to control over the South China Sea. China’s strategic intent may be as simple as a desire to exercise greater capability over its near seas, consistent with its growing power and confidence and infused by a sense of historical injustice, nationalism, and political exigency.