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What is China Building in the South China Sea?

February 22, 2015

By Ethan Rosen

The South China Sea contains some of the planet’s most disputed territory. Six countries — China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei — are squaring off as they compete over the rights to the sea.

The dispute centers on the contested Spratly Island Chain, a hodgepodge of small islands and submerged reefs which lie near the center of the South China Sea. All but Brunei have built military outposts in the Spratlys, and all of these countries minus China have built military airstrips on the islands. China, which arrived late to the Spratly land-grab, was left to occupy eight fully and semi-submerged reefs. With such little land to build upon, China has been playing catch up ever since.

Over the past year, China’s Spratly outposts have been systematically undergoing a process known as “land reclamation,” where dedicated dredging vessels dig up sediment from the sea and dump it on top of submerged reefs to make islands. China has already built five islands through reclamation, and at least two additional islands are in the early stages of development. China is not the first claimant to reclaim land – Malaysia’s Swallow Reef and several Vietnamese islands have been artificially built or extended – but China’s reclamation efforts are operating at a larger scale than any previous project. Already, the artificial island built on Fiery Cross Reef has eclipsed Taiwan’s Taiping Island as the largest in the Spratly Chain, and buildings are under development on several other Chinese reefs. As their new military outposts become operational, it is imperative that we understand just what China is building in the South China Sea.

Fiery Cross Reef

Fiery Cross Reef (also known as Yongshu Island) was completely underwater until August 2014, when Chinese dredgers began to dig up the surrounding sediment. Before construction began, the Chinese presence consisted of a single concrete bunker on the reef’s southwest end, but this island has since become the largest in the Spratly chain, measuring nearly 2.3 km². The new island includes a nearly two-mile long strip of land that appears to be the future site of an airfield.

Fiery Cross Reef Feb 6th 2015

Fiery Cross Reef

Fiery Cross Reef  Nov 14th 2014

Fiery Cross Reef

Between November 2014 and January 2015, the southwest of the reef was reclaimed, connecting the airfield with the original concrete structure and enlarging the total land mass of the reef. Dredging activity has not ceased, and land is still being reclaimed. Recent photographs released by Philippine media show that foundations in development for a large scale construction project on the northeast of the island.

Johnson South Reef

Johnson South Reef has undergone one of the most extraordinary transformations of any Spratly feature. Photographs released by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs show that land reclamation began in early 2014, and new photographs indicate that reclamation is still ongoing.

Johnson South Reef

Johnson South Reef

In early September 2014, nearly simultaneous reports released by IHS Janes and the BBC revealed the beginnings of a large construction project. It is unclear exactly when this construction began, but photographs taken in early December of 2014 clearly show a sizable building, possibly as high as ten stories, under construction on the newly developed island.

Johnson South Reef

Johnson South Reef

The photographs taken and released by Vietnam’s Thanh Nien News agency show a number of construction sites under development, including what may be an air traffic control center. Philippine media has claimed that Johnson South Reef will one day contain an airstrip, but current photographs fail to backup this claim.The reef’s area is roughly 6 km², and the island itself is approximately .16 km², which leaves ample room for further reclamation.

Cuarteron Reef

Cuarteron Reef is both China’s southernmost and westernmost outpost in the Spratly chain. Land reclamation on the reef appears to have started in March 2014. As of January 2015, China has built between .3 and .4 km² of new land. The newly built island is home to a seawall, a small military outpost, a helicopter pad, an artificial harbor, and a dock. Satellite photographs show ongoing construction projects, however photographs are not clear enough to make out what is being built.

Cuarteron Reef

Cuarteron Reef

Gaven Reefs

The Gaven Reefs are home to a mid-scale land reclamation project that has produced an artificial island approximately .08 km². Between June and August 2014, this island expanded from one small outpost into the buttressed island that exists today. Photos show that the new island contains barracks for construction workers and military personnel, shipping containers used as temporary shelters, an artificial harbor, and anti-aircraft weaponry. A report from IHS Janes indicates that this island contains both radar equipment and anti-ship guns.

Gaven Reef

Gaven Reef

Hughes Reef

Land reclamation on Hughes Reef appears to have begun in March 2014. Satellite photographs suggest that construction is ongoing on the newly built island. Reports indicate that the new island is home to a lighthouse and a military outpost.

Hughes Reef

Hughes Reef

Subi Reef

Subi Reef, China’s northernmost outpost in the Spratlys, is the most recent subject of land reclamation. Satellite photographs from early February, 2015 show a significant presence of dredgers working two separate points on the southeast and the southwest of the reef. Dredging at Subi Reef first appeared in satellite photographs taken on January 26, 2015, which showed that two dredging ships had begun work on Subi Reef’s southwest end. Prior to the start of land reclamation, Subi reef contained a helicopter pad and a small concrete outpost used to house visiting troops.

Subi Reef Feb 8th 2015

Subi Reef Feb 8th 2015

Subi Reef  Jan 26th 2015

Subi Reef Jan 26th 2015

Mischief Reef

Mischief Reef is China’s easternmost outpost in the Spratly chain. Satellite photographs from the end of January indicate that land reclamation has just begun. These photographs show a presence of dredging vessels on the southern end of the island, as well as the addition of new land separate from an existing concrete structure. Mischief Reef is less than 200 miles from the Philippine island of Palawan (less than 150 miles from some points), thus putting the reef well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. Predictably, the start of reclamation at Mischief Reef has been met with significant protest from the Philippines.

Mischief Reef  Jan 26th 2015

Mischief Reef Jan 26th 2015

Mischief Reef  Jan 26th 2015

Mischief Reef Jan 26th 2015

Eldad Reef

Eldad Reef is home to a naturally occurring teardrop-shaped sandbar on its north end. The sandbar’s size and shape remained consistent in photographs taken between January 2012 and November 2013. More recent photographs, show a slight increase in size of the sandbar, indicating that there may be a low-level reclamation project underway on Eldad reef. These photographs fail to capture dredging vessels and may simply be showing naturally occurring changes, however Philippine intelligence and media claim that Eldad Reef is in fact a current target of Chinese land reclamation. The situation on Eldad is ambiguous, and we should continue to watch the reef for signs of reclamation.

Eldad Reef

Eldad Reef

Based on satellite photographs and intelligence reports, it is clear that China is currently reclaiming land on at least seven of its eight reefs — Fiery Cross, Johnson South, Gaven, Hughes, Cuarteron, Subi, and Mischief — and that reclamation may have also begun on Eldad Reef. Reclamation on Johnson South, Gaven, Hughes, and Cuarteron Reefs started in early 2014, reclamation of Fiery Cross Reef began in August 2014, and reclamation on Subi and Mischief Reefs started in late January 2015. Land reclamation on Eldad reef may have started in December 2014.

Photographs indicate that massive construction projects are underway on the newly build islands at Fiery Cross and Johnson South Reefs, while less extensive but still serious construction is ondoing at Hughes, Gaven, and Cuarteron Reefs. Given the extent to which future control over the shipping lanes of the South China Sea will impact the global balance of power, China’s island construction is worthy of our attention.

 

Ethan Rosen

Ethan Rosen is a geopolitical researcher and analyst for China Six. His research focuses on the changing geopolitical situation between the Middle East and The Pacific. He is also the author of "The Bear, The Dragon, and the AK-47: How China, the United States, and radical Islamists conspired to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan."

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28 Comments

  1. Henry Nguyen

    The author does a good job in detailing current Chinese massive reclamation works and its potential to militarily and geo-politically overpower all other presences. The post is flawed when only mentioning the Spratly constructions without noting that Chinese already had superior forces possession in the Paracel base, barely 400 miles north. Comparing Malaysian, Filipino and Vietnamese strictly, defensive and manually constructed military outposts (airfields included) with Chinese clearly, offensive establishment diminishes Chinese aggressive territorial ambitions and blatant lawlessness. Finally, the historical background of South China Sea dispute can’t be understood unless, details of Chinese criminal and illegal invasions of Paracel (1974- 74 South Vietnamese sailors killed) and those exalt 8 rocks of Spratly islands chain (1988- 68 unarmed Vietnamese construction screws massacred) are revealed and differentiated from all land-grabs. In fact, despite having several claimants, China is the only actor that used deadly forces to gain its occupation as well as projecting similar threat going forward.

    Reply
      • Johnson Fuller

        Ms. Liang, what would you be referring to?

        What history specifically would you be looking to as an explanation? That taught to you in China, controlled and presented by the CCP?

        Reply
        • Hank

          and the CPV is any better? The Vietnamese are just as guilty of teaching BS propaganda to its population as China. Henry Nguyen’s account of China & Vietnam’s conflicts for these islands is full of Vietnamese propaganda bias.

          Last time I checked, South Vietnam and China were mortal enemies till the bitter end. Since when did it become “criminal and illegal” to fight & invade an enemy? If that’s the case, the North’s invasion of South Vietnam is just as illegal, and is the US’s annexation of California, Texas etc from Mexico an “criminal and illegal invasion” as well? Territories change hands all the time during wars, nothing criminal or illegal about this.

          Also since when did the Vietnamese soldiers and armed ships involved in the 1988 Johnson Reef skirmish magically become unarmed construction crews?

          Reply
    • Ralf Crown

      With all due respect, but he rather comes out as an American internet troll. The island in the South China Sea belonged to, and was populated by, Chinese some 2,000 years ago or even further back. Maps, documents and archeological findings confirm this, and so far it is not disputed. The USA, who has financed most of the other constructions and reclamations, disagree and claim historical belonging can not be used for today’s claims. May this is understandable, then it could be argued that North America must be returned to the Indians, Australia to the aborigines, etc. Territories as India, Rhodesia, Congo, and Singapore have been returned. We should also remember that the USA frequently invades other nation’s territories to control them, while China never has entered another country to take control. We can learn much from history and for the Chinese history is very important. The US has become very aggressive in Asia, and I can not see how the Chinese reclamation would be used for aggression.

      Reply
  2. Bill Jones

    “it is imperative that we understand just what China is building in the South China Sea.”

    What utter paranoid knicker-wetting bollocks,

    It is of no legitimate interest to anybody in the US or Europe at all.

    Reply
      • Var

        Are you an idiot?

        Country Code designation is given by ITU-T and its not a body which has the jurisdiction to classify a state as a Country.

        Country code 808 is used for Shared-cost service, is that a Country, because i would like to know where on the planet it is.

        Reply
    • Walker

      Of course, It is one country, two different governments each claiming the whole country yet the country itself is divided into two areas of control. Not such a difficult concept, but still just easier to think of two different countries. After a that its semantics.

      Reply
      • MichaelJ

        If philosophy and culture determine what we designate as a “country”, then mainland China and Taiwan are two separate entities. Having traveled in Taiwan (my partner is Taiwanese) and having lived several years in China, they are as different as chalk and cheese. A relatively free and capitalistic system for several generations produces a vastly different culture to that of a totalitarian, centrally “planned” system.

        Reply
    • Deschutron

      This criticism is not helpful.

      Taiwan is a piece of land governed by one state that doesn’t govern anywhere else, and as such, it at least has all the properties that a country has that are relevant to this article.

      As for the idea that the author is too ignorant to write this article, how is that so?

      They give some background, then they tell us about something happening in the South China Sea, and then they gives us photos and sources to support their claim.

      Why do they need to know the nuances of Taiwan’s countryness to tell us that?
      How much do they need to know before they can give us this information?

      Reply
  3. Pat Fields

    From what I’d learned a couple years ago, this ‘contested’ island was originally claimed without protest on international record, in the early 1700s. While Japan took the island in the 1930s and ‘cammandeered’ by the US on Japan’s defeat, the Chinese have maintained their original Title to over-rule those of others. In this case, then, China is acting Lawfully by expanding its use of the iaslan as its proper owner.

    Reply
    • Walker

      Your understanding is woefully lacking. You are mixing multiple issues into a mixed bowl that is garbled beyond recognition. The area has multiple islands and chains of islands that are distinct and under different disputes. The islands shown here are in the middle of a sea surrounded by multiple nations with each nation claiming the islands nearest to them. Then fairly recently, China claims that back in the dark ages China sailed ships through the area and so therefore the whole sea belongs to it. One of the weakest claims in all the disputes. Yet China rightfully realized that possession is the key and has started taking the islands pretty forcefully. Score: China wins.

      Reply
  4. Ting

    Needless to say, what China does and is doing will involve security for itself as well as exerting influence on others, now or later. But one notable thing is that what China is doing has not cause the loss of live of anyone or the destruction of any properties of another or others’ social structure. Whereas, USA is also trying to take pre-emptive efforts in the name of its own national security as well as exerting influence over others. What calamity has it caused ? See the difference. Who should the smaller nations fear ? The answer is obvious.

    Reply
    • VH

      The words ‘yet’ should be added to this farce of what China is doing in the South China sea. China doesn’t feel it is strong enough to project power into the south China Sea. When it does reach that point it will challenge anyone, including the United States to try and stop them

      China’s goal is to make the South China sea into a type of Chinese Caribbean.

      Reply
  5. aras

    Since china is getting more and more polluted soon these reef will disappear as of that pollution .. overfishing and etc.. I wonder why more and more Chinese leave the country to give births for example in the US??.. They should remain within gtheir country limits military and geopolitically… If I can go to the neighbors yard and poop then the neighbors land becomes mine?.. Is that the concept? Is that the explanation?

    Reply
    • ahmakow

      Wow! Europe and USA’s standard of living today is directly due to their conquest of several entire continents and running away with the largess. Wanna be righteous? USA has invaded no less than 50 countries since WW2. Two million Vietnamese died in the Vietnam war compared to 58000 US servicemen. I suppose not many of them actually threatened American interests…So perhaps some Chinese wanna run away to California to reclaim some of their Asian counterparts’ sacrifice in the past, what’s so wrong with that?

      Reply
  6. Allen

    Break it up guys – All those that want to be Chinese go to China, all those that want to be Taiwanese go to Taiwan, all those that want to be Americans go to America. Solved.

    Reply
    • Gus

      Some of us have LIVED in China and know exactly what they are up to, they will eventually claim every land mass not attached to East Asia and have repeatedly stated that they will obliterate Japan one day. The CCP’s only hold on its position is expansionist nationalism, whether it be swamping the reefs with litter throwing, rare species butchering ‘tourists’ or destroying Japanese cars and businesses on the mainland every time the party has an internal scandal on the brew.

      Reply
      • Ralf Crown

        I feel you are amusing. I came to China in the 70s, I live here permanently since many years. I have never hears “China” make any such statements, but I have heard ultra nationalists idiots do. Some of these they are locking up for sedition. I also lived many years in Japan, and equally I heard extremists wanting to obliterate China, and Japan has tried, lest we forget. In addition, I speak Japanese and I translate from Chinese, so very little escapes me. Both governments are level headed enough to quite down those extremists, on both sides.

        Reply
  7. china_land_grab

    China is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – this means 225 nautical miles from your land mass is your Exclusive Economic Zone “EEZ” (much like the US has oil rigs off the coast of Lousiana becuase it is within US EEZ). These reclaimed islands are within the EEZ of the Philippines. The basis of the Chinese claim to 90% of the South China Sea is a self-serving map that they themselves drew up in the 1940’s not on international law. Chinese are LAWLESS, this behavior is SHAMEFUL.

    Reply
  8. Jim C

    I really am not concerned with China or anyone else claiming these islands. We have no economic interest and we learned during WWII that Fixed Fortifications are not the means of military expansion. Radio stations are common on ships and thus movable which gives them multi task capabilities. Having shore guns is defensive in nature and hold no threat, but to those who venture well within the limits of territorial waters. Now, if there was evidence of Theater or Intercontinental Nuclear Ballistic armament then I would worry. But event them, if the intent was to use these weapons, their ballistic submarines would be the preferred means of deployment. And for those concerned of air strips on these islands, China now has aircraft carriers that again would be the preferred means of deployment. Not to mention their mobility which is a great advantage over fixed bases. In my many years of life, I have seen the “Drum Beats” of adversarial military expansion, only to benefit those who produce the weapons of war.

    Reply
  9. Richard

    I’m from Philippines and worked for the military 10 years ago. China was not aggressive in their claim then until the serious oil exploration the Philippines started about 15 years ago along its border and within the 200 NM EEZ (along Palawan island) and until they started building up their Naval firepoer. China claims the entire South China Sea because, according to them, their ancestors used to fish and sail the area. The Americans, Japanese and many other countries fish around the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. But do they claim the entire Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean? Of course, not! It’s obvious! China wants all the fish and the oil in the area! The sea is even named after them – South China Sea! What can the rest of the claimants do with China’s firepower being flexed? Is’t that bullying?

    Reply
    • HN

      By China’s argument, if South China Sea belongs to China and East China Sea belongs to China then what’s China doing drilling in the Indian Ocean? And no I’m not Indian.

      Reply
      • Richard

        Well, someday China will claim parts of Africa as theirs because they are also drilling oil there.

        Reply

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