In the South China Sea, a highly contested body of water in Eastern Asia, Chinese construction crews are hard at work raising small, artificial islands out of the shallow areas of the sea.
Tasked by the government to reclaim as much land as possible as swiftly as possible, these crews have already built six artificial islands on top of existing shallow reefs in the Spratly Islands, a chain of tiny islands to the west of the Philippines.
The islands created are small, barely longer than 3,000 yards, but hold incredible geopolitical meaning: they are the latest move in an on-going regional argument over ownership of the the Sea itself.
Regional powers in the area, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei, have for years tried to claim ownership over various sections of the resource-rich sea, which contains, among other things, plentiful oil fields and abundant fishery potential.
China, easily the most dominant power in the area, has slowly been winning both de jure and de facto, through standard militaristic intimidation tactics, illegal poaching of resources, and favorable trade agreements.
In response, her less powerful neighbors have begun to seek help from the international community, particularly the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the international body dedicated to, among other things, authenticating territorial sea claims.
In order to confront this legal challenge, China has begun building up these artificial islands, as well as claiming existing islands using military force.
The precise goals of the push are manifold, but they all end up supporting China’s ownership of the South China Sea in one way or another.
Legally, the islands provide China internationally legitimate claims over large swaths of the sea, giving Beijing a legal leg to stand on.
More worryingly, they are increasingly providing China a platform to extend her military’s reach. Several of the islands are home to small airbases or naval refueling stations, as well as Chinese troops and planes.
The increasing military presence of China in the sea, and its increasing ability to project power in the area, has only escalated the already rising tensions in the region.
Largely in response to China’s increasing ambitions and pressure in the region, and adding to the mess, is the United States’ “Pivot to Asia,” a plan by the Pentagon to have 60% of the U.S.’ naval power in the East Asian area, in addition to strengthening U.S. allies and increasing the U.S.’ soft power in the region.
China’s actions are bold ones, but they may pay off. Legally, China’s claim over the area would be on solid ground, though certainly still quite contentious.
Militarily, China’s sphere of influence would be greatly expanded, with the ability to fly bombing missions over Australia.
All of this would serve to grant China access to numerous resources which it could turn into economic power in the region and abroad. It’s little wonder that China is maneuvering as best it can to achieve these goals.