China’s Island Builders

South China SeaBy Andrew S. Erickson & Conor M. Kennedy

Foreign Affairs

Recent satellite images show that the Spratly islands, a series of features in the South China Sea, are growing at a staggering pace. Tons of sand, rocks, coral cuttings, and concrete are transforming miniscule Chinese-occupied outcroppings into sizeable islands with harbors, large multi-story buildings, airstrips, and other government facilities. The parties behind the construction and defense of these islands remain a thinly veiled secret. As China builds up its presence in the South China Sea, it is also greatly increasing its ability to monitor, bully, and even project force against its neighbors. In Machiavelli’s words, Beijing has decided that it is more important to be feared than loved—and that making progress before a new U.S. president pushes back is crucial to its regional aspirations.

Chinese strategy in the South China Sea may have many components, but it rests on the shoulders of one man: President Xi Jinping. Since assuming office in 2012, Xi has directed the nation’s transformation into a “Great Maritime Power” capable of securing its offshore rights and interests, including its unresolved maritime claims in the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas.

To meet this goal, Xi has built up China’s already powerful navy, which is led by Admiral Wu Shengli, a hard-charging, now the longest serving commander in modern Chinese history. While it has grown far more qualitatively than quantitatively since modernization accelerated in the mid-1990s, China already has more attack submarines than the United States, many of which are focused on a much smaller area. In September 2014, Wu reportedly took a weeklong trip by naval ship to survey land reclamation projects on several disputed South China Sea islands, indicating that his interest in promoting Chinese activities expand beyond wartime preparedness to include peacetime activities in the nation’s adjacent waters. There, Wu also observed joint operations drills held on Fiery Cross Reef, which were meant to enhance and showcase China’s growing ability to field a variety of forces across the South China Sea.

There has been a history of tensions with outside actors in waters claimed by China. On March 5, 2009, a frigate monitored three civil maritime vessels and two government-controlled trawlers during closely coordinated harassment against the survey vessel U.S.N.S. Impeccable in international waters. China’s navy has kept itself out of direct confrontation when other forces are available to do their dirty work. This dynamic allows China’s navy to play “good cop,” cultivating closer relations with, and learning from, its American counterpart. Smaller, harder-to-monitor paranaval “bad cops” are then free to advance China’s claims in the East and South China Seas. Some of the lowest-end, least glamorous work is assigned to the most junior force in the sea: China’s maritime militia.

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Picture: Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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