I spent a while living in the Persian Gulf many years ago, a place where the resources (lots of money) and conditions (not a ton of really livable land, what with all the desert all over the place) make it both feasible and desirable to pursue major offshore land reclamation projects. “Land reclamation” in this case is just what it sounds like: you dump enough sand/soil/whatever on a shallow part of the Gulf until you create new land, which can be attached to the mainland or can be a man-made island. For some reason this is called “reclamation” even though there wasn’t any land there in the first place, so you’re not actually reclaiming anything. But I guess the inherent environmental damage that goes along with this practice is somehow more palatable if you make people think that you’re actually taking land back from a greedy ocean that took it away from us in the first place.
Qatar has had a number of reclamation projects over the years. Its brand new, swanky (I assume; it pretty much has to be nicer than the old, overworked one) Hamad International Airport is built on 22 square kilometers, about half of which are reclaimed. There’s also The Pearl-Qatar, an artificial island created just off the coast in the northern part of Qatar’s capital, Doha, which seems to be tailored to wealthy expats looking for expensive places to live, eat, and shop (though commercial development there took a real hit when the government banned alcohol sales on the island in 2011). The UAE has also engaged in a lot of reclamation projects, especially in popular vacation spot Dubai where they’re building islands in the shape of palm trees, islands in the shape of a world map, and islands upon which to build massive, decadent hotels.
This is all to say that what China is doing in the South China Sea (specifically in the Spratly Islands) isn’t exactly new or unique. However, the Chinese government isn’t creating new islands for the purpose of building resorts, or creating extravagant residential opportunities for the ridiculously wealthy. Instead, it’s creating new islands in order to bolster its claims to ownership of the entire South China Sea, and that’s far more serious business. They’re not doing anything particularly unique there either, even in the Spratlys, but they are doing more of it than anybody else:
To be fair, China is not the first or only country to build new islands for political regions. Malaysia has built up land on Swallows Reef in the Spratlys for use by its navy as well as a scuba diving resort. Further to the East, Japan has built artificial islands to bolster its case in its own territorial disputes with China. But China’s activities have been on an unprecedented scale. According to Harris, China has created 1.5 square miles of new landmass in just the past few months. One analyst told the Washington Post that China has done more construction in the region in the past five months than other claimants have in the past five years.
This creates the potential for major problems, since other countries (Malaysia, obviously, but also the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei) also claim parts of the Spratlys, but those claims are disputed by China (and vice versa), and since many other countries (like, such as, US America) claim that much of the South China Sea is international water and thus freely navigable. Every country has the international right to claim as its own territory the waters within 12 miles off of its coastline, and it’s generally accepted that a country has the right to economically exploit (e.g., to drill for oil in) the waters up to 200 miles off of its coastline. The question is whether or not a country has the right to create new land in international waters then claim the waters within 200 miles of that new coastline. China obviously says yes, the other affected countries in this scenario seem to disagree.
To be clear, China claims ownership of the South China Sea with or without the presence of these newly created islands, but sees the islands as a way to strengthen that claim. It also sees them as a way, in the absence of a large blue-water navy, to project a stronger military presence into the area, which explains why it’s been building what looks very much like a military airbase on one of its artificial islands in the Spratlys (and may be building two more beyond that one).
Yesterday, the US decided to prod China a little bit and see what would happen. It sent a destroyer, the USS Lassen, sailing into waters that are claimed by China but that nobody else recognizes as belonging to China. And…nothing much happened. The Chinese government called the move a “deliberate provocation,” but it didn’t respond beyond that. Meanwhile, Washington said almost nothing about the whole episode apart from promising that it would feel free to keep sailing in those waters in the future. The whole thing was for show. The US doesn’t want to provoke China too much, but it also wants to stick up for its rights to sail through the South China Sea and to signal to its allies there (and to Japan, which is having its own maritime problems with China in the East China Sea) that it’s not going to let China dominate the region. China wants to argue for its own claims, but it’s exceedingly unlikely that they’re prepared to go to war over some maritime claims. This certainly isn’t an ideal situation, but it’s probably not going to lead to anything really dangerous, at least for the foreseeable future.