China’s frantic construction activity on a series of disputed reefs in the South China Sea has set off alarm bells across the Pacific and in Washington, raising fears that Beijing is putting steel in the ground to back up its contentious claims to a big swath of one of the world’s key waterways.
Since last summer, China has been busy transforming underwater reefs hundreds of miles from its coastline into artificial islands. Dredging vessels have been sucking out sand to create land where none was found before, and China is building new installations on the islands, including possibly airstrips, barracks, and radar sites.
In recent months, Chinese work has accelerated on about half a dozen disputed bits of coral in the South China Sea, according to new surveillance photos published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, an arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The construction activity is just the latest chapter in a long-running conflict over the South China Sea that has pitted China against most of its maritime neighbors and has brought it into conflict with the United States and Japan. China’s push into the area seems designed to bolster Beijing’s claim to the resource-rich waters — which teem with fish and may hold plentiful reserves of oil and natural gas — and to increase China’s ability to project military force in an area traditionally dominated by the United States and its allies.