Smile with an Intent to Do Mischief – Why Is China Really Making Islands in the South China Sea?
by Owen James Burke
Above: A March 16 satellite image shows China’s recent progress on Mischief Reef. Image: CreditCenter for Strategic and International Studies, via Digital Globe
The South China Sea is one of the most heavily trafficked commercial waterways and fishing grounds in the world. Oil and natural gas were discovered in the Spratly Islands in 1968. How large those reserves may be is anyone’s guess; they remain vastly unexplored, but every southeast Asian nation within a stone’s throw away has been grappling to claim ownership in the decades since. Last year, China began a coral-smothering dredging project to create more islands – seemingly with that very idea in mind.
“We are building shelters, aids for navigation, search and rescue as well as marine meteorological forecasting services, fishery services and other administrative services,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reported in a news briefing.
Mischief Reef, January 24, 2012 (left) and March 16, 2015 (right). Images: NYT/Center for Strategic and International Studies via Digital Globe
135 miles to the west of Palawan Island in the Philippines, China is creating an artificial island by dredging sand and burying the coral on Mischief Reef, an aptly named atoll which they laid claim to in 1995. 200 miles to the west of Mischief Reef is Fiery Cross Reef, atop which China has already established an artificial reef almost two miles long and 1,000 feet wide.
Philippine Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Paul Galvez has acknowledged China’s actions as a threat to the Philippines’ national security, and, further stoking the fire between the two nations, has urged that China dismantle the island. In late 2013, 8 Philippine soldiers were stationed on a shipwrecked navy vessel atop Ayungin Shoal (located just east of Mischief Reef) to keep China from encroaching. In response, China surrounded the garrison with their own naval vessels.
Likewise, China has since stationed a warship capable of holding 500-800 troops at the entrance of Mischief Reef, alarming US Defense Secretary Ash Carter that further militarization in the dispute could lead to “dangerous incidents,” if not World War III. “It’s not just an American concern,” he said (the US being allied with the Philippines), “but a concern of almost every country in the entire region.”
5 other reefs are rapidly being transformed into islands as well. Apart from providing offshore military defense for China, all of which, the nation purports, will serve to benefit civilian services of other nations.
Buzz in the surf world is that the artificial island on Mischief Reef could begin to produce surf breaks, which would theoretically create a buffer for the mainland and support China’s dubious claim that part of their interest is in protecting the waterway from typhoons.
Of course, these being fertile fishing grounds too, the new island building could also make way for diving and eco-tourism resorts. Then again, with almost all of southeast Asia gritting its teeth at China, it seems more likely to create a tense lineup.