What exactly is China doing in the South China Sea?

China's militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea is worsening tensions in an already highly disputed region.

    2016/03/07

NSFW    SOUTH CHINA SEA — The South China Sea has been a source of much tension among countries with competing territorial claims to portions of the region, and China's rapid expansion in recent years has only made things worse.

According to the Washington Post, about a third of the world's shipping lines pass through the South China Sea annually. The area is abundant with oil, natural gas, marine life and other resources — and no less than six countries are claiming land there as their own.

Invoking geographical proximity, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim all or part of the disputed islands in the area.

China claims the entire South China Sea as its territory. In 2014, its nine-dash line was updated to a 10-dash-line, now including Taiwan.

According to a report compiled for the U.S. Congress, China began dredging in the South China Sea in 2013, moving sediment from the seafloor to submerged reefs to create artificial islands. By 2015, there were seven new islets: Mischief, Subi, Fiery Cross, Gaven, Hughs, Cuarteron, and Johnson South Reefs.

Shortly afterwards, China built docks, lighthouses, bunkers, helipads, communication towers and other infrastructure on the islands.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reports that in September 2015, a three-kilometer runway was completed on Fiery Cross Reef, with three civilian test flights successfully landing by January. Airstrips are nearing completion at both Subi and Mischief Reefs.

Radar facilities on the smaller islets — Cuarteron, Gaven, Hughs and Johnson South — allow China to monitor surface and air traffic more significantly. On Woody Island in the Paracels, Beijing recently deployed two batteries of HQ-9 surface to air missiles and fighter aircraft.

The expansion has both environmental and political ramifications. In forming the new islands, marine ecosystems were damaged and possibly destroyed. According to the Guardian, they were either outright buried or killed by corrosive sand and sediment from the dredging process.

Rapid militarization of the area also has tensions running high in the region. The United States, not recognizing China's ownership of the islands, sent missile destroyers near the islands last year as a show of force.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan have also expanded islands in the Spratlys, but on a much smaller scale. CSIS ASIA MARITIME TRANSPARENCY INITIATIVE
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan have also expanded islands in the Spratlys, but on a much smaller scale. CSIS ASIA MARITIME TRANSPARENCY INITIATIVE
China has repeatedly rejected international arbitration on the disputed islands. FLICKR / TIMES ASI
China has repeatedly rejected international arbitration on the disputed islands. FLICKR / TIMES ASI
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