Chinese island fortress construction in the South China Sea

Chinese military construction in the South China Sea is radically altering the island environment and creating military installations on artificial islands, where before there were reefs. These new bases, in disputed areas, will project power far from the mainland.

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The Spratly Islands were a collection of reefs and uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, which for most of the 20th Century were not seen as possessing any strategic value. The waters teemed with fish and were visited by fishing boats from several nearby countries. During the 1980s, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma and Myanmar all began backing up claims to areas by establishing a military presence. A few isolated military outposts were built on small islands, or constructed on stilts, and garrisoned. Recently, there has been speculation that the area may hold oil and natural gas deposits, but no one exploration has yet to uncover large deposits.

The rest of this page looks at some of these remote sites, while focusing on how China’s recent activity is on an altogether different scale:

Philippines*

One of the largest islands, Thitu, or Pagasa Island, is claimed by the Republic of the Philippines. This is the only site where civilian residences have been built:Thitu Island 2019On Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippine Navy purposefully grounded an old Landing Ship, Tank, the BRP Sierra Madre, in 1999 and has garrisoned this rusting hulk with Marines ever since. This was mostly a response to concerns about Chinese interest in the area. The small detachment has at times been blockaded by Chinese ships, and resupply efforts have been impeded.BRP Sierra Madre outpost 2011Vietnam

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, meanwhile, has built on several sites. Vietnamese construction on the Spratlys consists of distinctive octagonal outposts built on several reefs. The only active combat in the area was between China and first South Vietnam and later Vietnam. In 1974 in the Paracel Islands to the North, South Vietnamese forces skirmished with the Chinese navy. Then in 1988 Vietnam and China clashed. These two engagements resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred Vietnamese sailors.Barque Canada Reef Vietnamese outpostMalaysia

The Malaysian presence consists mostly of a combined civilian and military presence on Swallow Reef, with a runway (with “Malaysia” written in large letters on it). The occupation of this site began in 1983:

swallow reef Spratly 2018

The island, which is mostly taken up by Layang-Layang airport, includes a Royal Malaysian Navy facility, but also boasts tourist sites and scuba diving. Note the dredged channel through the reefs to get to the central lagoon (at far left of capture), a common feature of Spratly Islands construction.

Taiwan

The Republic of China (Taiwan) has continued to maintain claims dating to the late 19th Century over a large swath of territory, including the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Thus far their only occupied settlement is on Itu Aba Island:Itu Aba Island Taiwan claim 2019

China

Like Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has continued to maintain similar claims. The PRC did not establish a continuous presence or move to occupy the few sites in the region above water level. The Spratlys were, after all, quite far from mainland China. That changed when the PRC began an unprecedented bid for control of the disputed territory around 2005. In a pattern that would be repeated, a few Chinese naval and Coast Guard units started routinely patrolling isolated spots. Then an armada of merchant ships, protected by naval landing ships and other escorts, would arrive to begin massive dredging and “land reclamation.” They built islands where before there had been semi-submerged reefs. These 2005, 2015 and 2019 slideshow views of Subi reef (very near Thitu Island) show the general pattern:

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Next came modern port facilities, barracks, 1000′ runways, aircraft control towers and hangars. According to sources, sites have been fortified by anti-aircraft missile sites. Any nearby ships and overflights, including by US military aircraft, are now contacted with warnings to avoid Chinese territory.

The dredging and construction of sea walls to “reclaim” land that never existed may be the key to Chinese territorial ambitions in the region: The ability to enforce a claim on these features could come down to the legal definition between a “low-tide elevation” (submerged at high tide – a reef for example) and a feature that is above water at high-tide. Dumping fill, as can be seen in the following dramatic images of Fiery Cross Reef in 2014 and 2019, could have serious international consequences:

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*An important source for locating features in the Spratly Islands and determining who claimed these sites is Alexander Vuving’s 2016 article in The Diplomat “South China Sea: Who Occupies What in the Spratlys?” [link]