China is Building Massive Artificial Islands — and the Motive is Unclear

September 23, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Map of the South China Sea and occupation of its central islands
Photo credit: Yeu Ninje/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

China is rapidly constructing artificial islands in the contested waters of the South China Sea, raising questions about what purpose the new land will serve.

In a controversial maneuver, China is rapidly reclaiming land on some islands and reefs in disputed waters in the South China Sea. For the past year, the country has been piling sand onto reefs to create seven new islets, thus intensifying the existing geopolitical tensions between itself and the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

China’s speed and scale of the island-building project came as somewhat of a shock to other countries with interests in the region. Not only will China have more land for port facilities and small military units, but the country may also be able to implement more control over fishing in the region. Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told the New York Times that although there are significant fisheries and natural gas reserves in the South China Sea, China’s main objective behind the artificial island-building is to strengthen its territorial claims.

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It’s important to note — building artificial islands has the potential to harm marine life in the process. The process goes as follows: sediment is broken up and extracted from the seabed, transported through a floating pipe, and then deposited on the reef. Several reefs have already been destroyed to form foundations for new islands, and the damage extends to the surrounding marine ecosystem. In fact, the sediment can wash back into the sea and form plumes, or masses of polluted material that spread from the new island. These plumes can carry traces of heavy metals, oil, and other chemicals from construction that threaten the biological diversity of surrounding reefs.

Before this surge in construction, China’s reefs hosted smaller structures. This enables China to claim that the construction is just an expansion of its earlier facilities, which other countries in the region have also done. However, it’s unclear what kind of structures will emerge on the new islands and how they will affect China’s influence over the region. So far it’s known that the islands will each have room for airstrips large enough to allow China to land any planes, from fighter jets to large transport airplanes.

In order to keep everything hush-hush, the Chinese navy is handling traffic over the artificial islands. According to CNN, a U.S. surveillance plane carrying a CNN crew flew over the islands in May, triggering warnings from the Chinese navy to back off. But China continues to maintain that the construction doesn’t target any other countries or affect navigation by sea or air.

Nonetheless, it’s still striking that, in just 18 months, China has created more than 2,000 acres of new land from what used to be simply sea water and reefs. With the expeditious pace at which China is building usable land from the ocean’s resources, the country’s objectives will likely become evident in the months to come.

See before and after photos here.

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