Why China Is Building Islands In The South China Sea

This is Fiery Cross island. It's a little more than one square mile in size and it's home to a Chinese military base. There's a 10,000 foot airstrip, an advanced radar station, a missile defense system, and about 200 troops.

But the strangest thing about Fiery Cross Island is that two years ago, it didn't exist. And neither did the six other Chinese military bases that have been built on man-made islands in the South China Sea.

If you look at this satellite image from 2014, you can see huge Chinese ships collecting around remote reefs in the Spratly Islands. An archipelago in the South China Sea. In this image, these ships are rapidly pumping sand and rock up onto the reef. They're building islands. 

And less than a year later, the Chinese had seaports air bases and buildings on their new islands and the world had taken notice.

[News] We continue our look this morning on what China does not want you to see, the superpower is reclaiming land in seven spots in the South China Sea, adding on average more than three-and-a-half acres everyday. 

With these islands, China is trying to lay claim to one of the most important areas of ocean in the world, the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is incredibly rich in natural resources 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and ten percent of the world's fisheries.

Most importantly though, 30% of the world's shipping trade flows through here to the booming population centers and economic markets of Southeast Asia.

It's an extremely important body of water and right now five countries lay claim to some part of it. Now, most countries base their claim off the UN Law of the Seas, which says a country's territorial waters extend 200 miles off their shore. An area called the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. Countries have exclusive rights to all the resources and trade in there EEZ. It's their sovereign territory.

So for example, any oil that's found within 200 miles off the coast of Vietnam belongs exclusively to Vietnam. But any area that isn't in an EEZ is regarded as international waters and it falls under UN maritime law which means everybody shares it.

Now, every country in the South China Sea region uses this 200-mile EEZ threshold to determine its claims. All except China. 

China argued they have a historical claim to the South China Sea dating back to naval expeditions in the 15th century. And they mark it using a really confusing border called the nine-dash line.

Following World War II, Japan who had dominated the entire region, lost all control of its surrounding seas. China used the moment to claim the South China Sea by drawing this imprecise line on the map that encompassed ninety percent of the South China Sea. It became known as the nine-dash line.

When the UN established the 200-mile EEZ in 1973, China stuck to its own line, refusing to clarify its boundaries and ignoring claims by other countries. 

Now that brings us to the Spratly Islands. It's a remote barely inhabited cluster of islands currently claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The Spratlys are both geographically and symbolically at the heart of South China Sea. That's because any country that can claim the Spratly islands can extend their EEZs to include them and gain exclusive rights to the surrounding territory.

But it's really hard to legitimately claim uninhabited piles of sand so a few nations have built small buildings and ports on their claimed islands and even stuck a few people there. But China believes all the Spratly Islands belong to them which brings us back to why they're building islands there.

Installing military bases on these new artificial islands took the dispute to a whole new level showing how China's potentially willing to defend its claims with force.

Now this is about when the United States took notice. While the US has no claim in the South China Sea, it is the world's lone superpower and uses its massive Navy to defend international waters. China sees the US presence in the area as an encroachment in their backyard.

When a US destroyer ship sailed just 12 miles off the shore of one of China's man-made islands and the Spratlys, China sent out their own destroyer and a patrol boat as a warning.

China is building these islands in order to increase control around the surrounding waters. Using a strategy that they've deemed "The Cabbage Strategy." Where they surround a contested island with as many ships as possible. 

In May of 2013 China sent several ships to Ayungin shoal, which is just 105 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines, well within that 200 mile EEZ. The Philippines has eight soldiers stationed there. 

Like wrapping leaves around a cabbage the Chinese sealed off the Philippines access to Ayungin Shoal with fishing boats, surveillance ships, and navy destroyers creating blockade so that the Filipinos can't receive shipments of food and supplies.

By building their own man-made islands, China's essentially building naval bases. The more Islands they have the more ships they can support and more territory they can slowly take control of. And the Chinese cautiously use the cabbage strategy in the Spratly islands, taking over contested territory but in small steps avoiding the possibility of igniting a bigger conflict. 

But the disputes are intensifying. Countries are now actively arresting trespassers in waters that they claim and China could not go further. Since 2015 they've threatened to declare an air identification zone above the South China Sea, declaring that all aircraft that fly through it would need Chinese permission. 

Now, publicly China insists that their intentions are not militaristic but their actions say otherwise and it's heightening tensions in the region.

Steve Bannon who sits on the US National Security Council and who is one of President Trump's closest advisors is almost certain that the US will go to war in the South China Sea. 

[Steve Bannon] "We're going to war in the South China Sea, I was a sailor there, a naval officer, we're going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years aren't we? There's no doubt about it."

But for now the disputes remain only in the legal and diplomatic realms that only occasionally break into minor clashes. 

In July 2016 the international court at the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines who charged China with invading their rightful territory in the South China Sea. 

China dismissed the ruling and enforcement of the law doesn't seem likely. Even from the US who released a vague statement urging the two countries to "clarify their claims" and "work together to resolve their disputes" which is another way of saying "we don't really want to deal with this."

In fact, as the conflict escalates and international courts get involved, the US is stuck in a tricky position. On one hand, they do not want to risk provoking a conflict with China. But on the other, they want China to stop bullying their allies in the region.

Up until now the US has managed the situation by continuing to patrol through the South China Sea. It's also likely that the US would fly fighter jets above the sea if China actually does declare an air identification zone. These are symbolic but effective ways of keeping China in check while not getting too involved in the details of the conflict. 

So far the disputes in the South China Sea have not become violent but countries are starting to defend their claims by increasing troop numbers, weaponizing their territory and provoking each other. 

It's a complex situation that will continue to gain international attention for better or for worse.

Source: Vox. Video by: Sam Ellis.

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