A report released by the Pentagon in late August has revealed the scope and size of China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. Over the past two years, China has been working nonstop to increase the size of its possessions in the region to facilitate the construction of installations on them, including those of a military nature. This has been seen as a provocative action by countries in the region, particularly those who are contesting claims in the South China Sea. While Beijing claimed in June that reclamation activities were nearly finished, evidence shows quite the opposite. Regardless if China has finished reclamation work and has moved on to facility construction or is still engaged in land reclamation, the issue is sure to keep tensions high.
Released late August by the Pentagon, “Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy” offers a revised analysis on China’s activities. Back in May, the Pentagon claimed that China had reclaimed around 2,000 acres of land but this new report based on information from June nearly doubles that amount to 2,900 acres. That figure is equivalent to 4.5 square miles. China’s land reclamation project began in December 2013 and has been active on seven out of eight of its possessions in the South China Sea.
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China said in June that it had stopped reclamation work. Whether this was planned or was in response to regional protests is uncertain. Reports have repeatedly emerged that China is still engaged in reclamation though. David Shear, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs said “It’s not clear to us that they have stopped or if they are finishing up,” The reclamation, he said, is taking place on “features” that have long been occupied by China.
Land Reclamation in Perspective
Overall, China’s land reclamation project has roughly tripled the size of the entire group of natural islands. While other claimant countries have reclaimed land as well, the total by China in two years is equivalent to 17 times that of what others have done in the past 40 years. In total, China accounts for about 95% pf all reclaimed land in the Spratlys. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan have reclaimed 80, 70, 14, and eight acres respectively.
China’s land reclamation efforts in the Spratlys pale in comparison to other reclamation projects worldwide in terms of overall size. What is impressive is that this reclamation is occurring far from mainland China, in the middle of the South China Sea on remote reefs in a region swept by typhoons. No reclamation project so far from land has been undertaken on such a scale as this. Furthermore, the total reclaimed land area is several times the size of New York City’s iconic Central Park; still small compared to other reclamation projects but still large.
Fiery Cross Reef
Fiery Cross Reef is arguably garnering the most attention out of China’s possessions in the Spratlys due to the sheer size of the reclamation project and the facilities located there. All the claimant nations to the Spratley Islands except for China and Brunei currently have airfields in them. Vietnam has a small airfield on Spratly Island, while the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia have larger fields on Thitu Island, Itu Aba Island, and Swallow Reef respectively. Access to airfields provides an edge to a country in conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions. China though lacked what others had and has been working to rectify that.
Starting in August 2014, China went to work expanding Fiery Cross Reef and within three months, had increased its area by 11 times creating an island 3,000 meters long and 300 meters wide. Now, Fiery Cross Reef has eclipsed the former largest island in the Spratlys, Taiwan’s Itu Aba Island by three times. More important is the airfield being constructed there. Believed to ultimately be 3,110 meters in length when completed, this airfield will be the largest in the Spratlys and offer China a base that can accommodate a wide variety of aircraft ranging from heavy transports to the most modern fighters found in Beijing’s arsenal. Additionally, China is constructing significant port facilities on the reef.
While Fiery Cross Reef will be primarily dedicated to aviation needs, it appears that Mischief Reef will host a large naval base. Over twice the size of Fiery Cross Reef at 5,580,000 square meters, Mischief Reef lies within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. Chinese warships are frequently spotted around the reef and it is believed the reef will serve as a forward naval station. Mischief Reef has many advantages over the islands that can allow it to be transformed into a naval base, especially its relatively deep lagoon.
Subi Reef is the northernmost Chinese possession in the Spratly Islands. Overall, 3,950,000 square meters have been reclaimed since land reclamation began in July 2014. It is believed that Subi Reef can eventually host a 3,000 meter long runway if land reclamation continues. Currently the reef hosts a variety of communication and garrison facilities. It should be said that Subi Reef is only 25 kilometers from Philippine civilian populations.
Johnson South Reef
With a total area of 109,000 square meters, South Johnson Reef is the second smallest of China’s possessions in the Spratlys to undergo reclamation. Originally a submerged reef, up until early 2014, the only manmade feature was a small concrete platform. The island from photo evidence has a small port and a large military facility. More importantly are the presence of two radar towers possibly implying that Johnson South Reef is primarily meant to keep an eye on activities in the multiple nearby islands held by Vietnam.
Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef
Located on the western side of the Spratlys is Cuarteron Reef at 231,100 square meters. Growing from 22,000 to 136,000 square meters is Gaven Reef which is located near the center of the Spratly Islands. There is a main central building that appears to incorporate an anti-aircraft tower. Once a small concrete platform built on a submerged reef, Hughes Reef has grown to be 75,000 square meters in area. With a main facility similar to that found on Gaven Reef, military facilities on Hughes appear to be primarily of a garrison type.
The reclamation project in the South China Sea has received considerable coverage in recent months and for good cause. By reclaiming land and constructing facilities, China is solidifying its hold on its current possessions. The facilities being built on Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef though go far beyond the basic military garrison necessary for the defense of the possessions. An airfield capable of hosting fighters, bombers, long-range transports and a deep water navy base seem entirely unnecessary when one considers that other claimant nations have no inclination to attempt to take China’s possessions. Rather, it would be appear that China is developing what would be necessary to launch and sustain a military campaign with the intent of capturing other islands in the Spratlys. Only time will tell.