Showdown in the South China Sea: China’s artificial islands explained

Extending south of China and ringed in by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia is a 1.35 million-square-mile body of water known as the South China Sea. If it truly is the case that East Asia is the global economy’s center of gravity, then the South China Sea might be its singularity. In 1405, the Chinese admiral Zheng He set sail with a fleet of treasure ships, traveling to neighboring nations and eventually as far as Mombasa, spreading knowledge of China’s wealth. Today, the South China Sea is again a venue for China to display its power — though with a very different fleet.

Although from on high the sea may seem a blue wasteland, punctuated occasionally by specks of uninhabited land, the islands have seen a frenzy of activity in recent years: China has constructed a series of artificial islands throughout the area. These artificial islands are a showcase of Chinese engineering, and this muscle-flexing has provoked strong reactions from China’s neighbors in the region, particularly the Philippines, which brought a suit against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. On July 12, 2016, the international tribunal ruled against China, however, the superpower refused to acknowledge the decision or even the court’s jurisdiction.

What exactly are China’s artificial islands, and why are they so important? As it turns out, China’s island-building plan sits on a contentious intersection of technology, politics, and the environment.

How do you build an island?

For those wondering what an artificial island is made of, the answer is the same thing most islands are made of: sand. The process for building these islands is remarkably simple, although the technology involved is imposing.

The first requirement for an island is a base to build on. Naturally formed islands don’t float in the water; rather, an island is simply the top, visible part of a land mass that is mostly underwater.

To construct its artificial islands, China builds atop already existing, islands, rocks, and even coral reefs. Building an island that can support airstrips and other military installations requires a lot of sand, however. To gather it, China uses a fleet of dredgers, ships designed to pick up and move materials from the seafloor. These dredgers use large tubes with cutting attachments at the end to grind up material on the seafloor and suck it up. From there, the material is carried through pipes or hoses and dumped on top of reefs, rocks, and other existing formations.

dredgers pouring sand
CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe
CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe

Once the islands are large and stable enough, China can then lay down cement and build structures on them. The extent of the changes can be striking. For example, below is Fiery Cross Reef in 2006.

fiery cross reef 2006
CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe
CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe

Here is Fiery Cross Reef in 2015, after China converted it into an island.

fiery cross reef 2015
CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe
CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe

The new island includes a runway and harbor, as well as numerous other buildings.

What’s the point?

China’s island-building efforts require a heavy investment in engineering and infrastructure, so why is the country going to all this trouble? Perhaps the prime motivation is to reinforce China’s claim over the region. The Spratly Islands and other nearby chains lack indigenous populations. As such, they are claimed by the various neighboring nations. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and China all claim portions of the South China Sea, but China’s claim is extraordinary. Dubbed the “nine-dash line,” China’s claim (as presented to the United Nations in 2009) covers most of the sea, extending down to the coast of Malaysia. Naturally, this has proven contentious, prompting the Philippines — located very close to the Spratlys, which China includes in its claims — to bring a case against China in international court.

By transforming reefs and cays into military installations, China is extending its military capabilities in the South China Sea. Airstrips, radar arrays, and all such buildings give China the ability to project force throughout the region.

Why is controlling the South China Sea so important? Although the scattered islands may be unimpressive, the South China Sea is one of the busiest trade routes in the world. According to information gathered by the council on Foreign Relations, more than $5.3 trillion worth of shipping travels through the sea each year; $1.2 trillion of this trade belongs to the United States.

Beyond its importance as a trade route, the South China Sea may also contain bountiful resources beneath the surface. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that there are 11 billion barrels of oil in the South China Sea, as well as 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. As East Asia continues to grow in importance, these resources — and who gets to control them — will become more important.

Fuel is not the only resource in abundance in the South China Sea. The region is one of the most important zones in the world for fishing. In fact, 12 percent of the global catch comes from the South China Sea. Astonishing as it may sound, this may be a far bigger point of contention than the fuel reserves. Fishing is a crucial industry for China, which is currently the largest producer of fish in the world. China accounts for 17.4 percent of the world’s marine catch, nearly three times that of runner up Indonesia, according to a report from the Center for Naval Analyses. China is also the world’s biggest exporter of fish products, with nearly $20 billion in exports in 2013.

What’s the ecological impact?

The political implications of this island-building plan are dire, as are the environmental consequences. Coral reefs are delicate ecosystems, made up of thousands of various creatures, and the sand piled on top of the reefs smothers these organisms. This is troubling because, although reefs occupy a tiny fraction of the world’s oceans, they are among the most populous marine areas, supporting thousands of different species. The damage does not stop at the reefs, either.

“The sand and silt stirred up by the dredgers covers most of the lagoon and is settling out on most of the remaining reef,” Professor John McManus said to The Guardian. “The sand will kill nearly any bottom-dwelling organisms on which it settles in large quantities, and clog the gills of most fish.”

This damage to coral reefs is not easily fixed, either. According to McManus, coral buried under sand cannot recover. As a result, thousands of species in the sea could be destroyed, and this could have consequences beyond the ecological. Coral reefs are, amazingly enough, important to the development of pharmaceuticals; scientists have developed several drugs and treatments by studying marine organisms.

What happens next?

Although the international tribunal at The Hague ruled unanimously against China’s claim to most of the disputed territory, the tribunal has no means to enforce its ruling. China, for its part, has refused to take part in the arbitration from the beginning, and the country’s Foreign Ministry does not recognize the ruling as valid, according to a statement released soon afterward. Indeed, the country is poised to expand its operations in the South China Sea, rather than backing down.

Chinese authorities are already planning to build a massive laboratory nearly 10,000 feet beneath the surface, says a report from Bloomberg. Several countries, including the Philippines and Japan, have called for China to respect the ruling, and the U.S. has been conducting “freedom of navigation” patrols near the islands and reefs under Chinese control.

In December, the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) published a report claiming that China has installed weapon platforms on the island, based on recent satellite images. These weapons include “large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems (CIWS),” which are designed to shoot down nearby missiles and aircraft. Why the need for such weaponry? “Among other things, they would be the last line of defense against cruise missiles launched by the United States or others against these soon-to-be-operational air bases,” according to the AMTI.

China maintains, however, that these installations are “legitimate and lawful.” A statement by the Chinese Defense Ministry put it poetically: “If someone makes a show of force at your front door, would you not ready your slingshot?”

It seems that none of the parties operating in the region are willing to back down. For now, the artificial islands remain a gray harbinger of an uncertain future.

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