The Origins of China’s Island Construction in the South China Sea

Among all the policies China has adopted toward the South China Sea in recent years, the most significant and consequential is undoubtedly its determination to turn reefs and shoals into formidable islands in the Spratly Islands chain. Beijing’s land reclamation and island construction activities have become the central focus of South China Sea tensions since 2014, when those activities, initially carried out almost by stealth, were highlighted by high-resolution satellite images and widely publicized by prominent American think tanks and the United States Department of Defense.

China has not released official figures on the scale and costs of the building project. According to US estimates, most recently from Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command, China has reclaimed 3,000 acres of former reefs in 18 months.1 Beijing has neither confirmed nor denied such claims.

According to some unofficial Chinese estimates,2 some of the islands being constructed are becoming the largest features in the entire South China Sea. For example, Fiery Cross Reef (“Yongshu Jiao” in Chinese), one of the seven Spratly features currently being built, has been expanded to an area of 2.8 square kilometers. This is larger than the 2.6 square kilometers of Woody Island (“Yongxing Island” in Chinese) in the Paracel Islands chain — previously the largest in the area — also controlled and constructed by China. Moreover, Fiery Cross Reef now contains an airstrip which is 3,160 meters long, and which is capable of handling any type of Chinese aircraft, military as well as civilian.

Although other South China Sea claimant states — principally Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines — have also reclaimed land and built facilities over the features they control, and over a much longer period, the scale and speed of the Chinese constructions have dwarfed all of them. Beijing’s determination with island construction is thus unmistakable. The question is why.

It is natural to associate the current round of island construction with the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who is widely perceived to be a strong and assertive leader. However, proposals for land reclamation and island construction in the Spratly Islands had been around for some time before Xi became president. And those proposals came from both the military and the civilian quarters of China’s policy community. That those proposals did not become policy shows the caution of Chinese policymakers during the Hu Jintao era. But that does not mean that the Chinese did not wish to do something. Significant voices inside China were already calling for a more proactive approach toward the South China Sea during that period.

Observers have often missed this early origin of China’s desire to pursue construction projects in the South China Sea. But it is essential for understanding a vital part of China’s South China Sea policy today, in part because it points to the responsibilities that Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines need to bear for what has today become a massive Chinese project of reclamation and construction in the Spratly Islands.

In 2003, Malaysia completed the modernization of an airport on Swallow Reef originally built in 1983, with a new 1,360-meter airfield. In 2004, Vietnam began work to rebuild an airfield on Big Spratly with a 600-meter airstrip.

After signing the Declaration of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002, China took a somewhat relaxed attitude toward this aspect of regional policy and focused its attention elsewhere, perhaps assuming that the DOC would be able to restrain the relevant parties and remove South China Sea from the regional policy agenda. But this assumption proved to be too optimistic. In fact, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines did not fundamentally halt their activities. They continued to consolidate their features, build facilities, and promote tourism and other kinds of activities that could strengthen their hold over these features.

For example, in 2003, Malaysia completed the modernization of an airport on Swallow Reef originally built in 1983, with a new 1,360-meter airfield. In 2004, Vietnam began work to rebuild an airfield on Big Spratly with a 600-meter airstrip. Vietnam has also been reclaiming land and building facilities on Sand Cay. Both Malaysia and Vietnam are promoting their respective islets as tourist destinations. The Philippines began to improve military facilities on Thitu Island, including refurbishing its airstrip, after 2006.3

Whether these activities reflected a clear-headed strategy from these countries for consolidating their positions in the South China Sea is hard to know. What is clear is that, although China’s top leadership under Hu Jintao preferred not to act forcefully, the relevant bureaucracies within the Chinese government — particularly those with responsibilities for maritime law enforcement and fisheries — were growing increasingly furious with what they saw as these countries’ continued infringement of Chinese sovereign rights. They were also becoming increasingly impatient with Hu Jintao’s low-profile approach. Understanding this important background to the recent round of tensions that began after 2009, one can appreciate why the initial Chinese “assertiveness” during 2009-2011 came largely from these maritime bureaucratic actors.

The new leadership of Xi Jinping is, of course, essential for understanding Chinese policy after 2012, including the island construction decision that was made in late 2013. If Hu Jintao was reluctant to take on a massive construction project in South China Sea, Xi Jinping responded with boldness and decisiveness. If earlier proposals had difficulty reaching Hu’s desk for full consideration, policy actors succeeded in finding new channels to have their voices heard by Xi.

But an interesting counterfactual question is: had not Malaysia and Vietnam continued their building activities after signing the DOC, and had not these two countries in May 2009 made submissions to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf seeking to extend their continental shelves into the South China Sea that triggered the recent round of tensions, would Xi still have authorized the decision on island construction?

In asking this question, I am not putting all the blame on or attributing all of the causes of China’s island construction decision to the Southeast Asian claimant states. China is, after all, the central actor in the chain of events we have witnessed. And we should never underestimate the effect of China’s increased capabilities to influence events in the South China Sea and the confidence this has given policymakers in pursuing a bolder approach. But understanding the essential background and taking a more comprehensive and balanced perspective on recent events will help us better understand the origins of China’s very consequential decision of island construction. It may also help policymakers in the relevant countries to reflect on their past policies, draw appropriate lessons, and make wise decisions for enhancing peace and stability in the region.

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About

Dr Feng Zhang (PhD, LSE) is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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