Land Reclamation: A South China Sea Game Changer


It is widely reported that China is conducting land reclamation on six of its seven occupied features in the Spratlys in the South China Sea, transforming the submerged reefs and rocks into full-pledged islands with airstrips, harbors and other military and civilian structures. Once reclamation works are completed, Fiery Cross Reef alone will be at least two square kilometres in size – as large as all other islands in the Spratlys are combined.

Chinese officials and scholars have cited several reasons to justify Beijing’s strategic move including a need for improved search and rescue capability in the South China Sea, a desire to improve the working and living conditions of Chinese nationals working there, and a need for a base to support China’s radar and intelligence system. Chinese representatives have complained on various occasions that it is unfair to point the finger at China as other SCS claimants have already engaged in reclamation activities and China is the last of claimants to have airstrips there.



Whatever the reasons are, Chinese unprecedented large-scale land reclamation works, once finished, will tremendously impact the dynamics of the claimants’ contest and major powers’ competition in the South China Sea.


Chinese fishing squads, which already enjoy financial, technical, and administrative support from central and local governments, can utilize facilities on the enlarged islands to extend the duration and scope of their fishing activities, which will most likely stoke tensions with other claimants as they intrude into the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia and court confrontation with those countries’ fishermen and law enforcement forces.


The enlarged islands with airstrips and harbors could arguably strengthen Chinese coercive capabilities, allowing China to quickly and extensively deploy its military, paramilitary and pseudo-civilian vessels and aircrafts to the central and southern parts of the South China Sea in case of confrontation with other claimants.


Jane’s Defence Weekly considers Chinese facilities on the enlarged islands as “purpose-built to coerce other claimants into relinquishing their claims and possessions.” It is unlikely that other claimants will ever relinquish their claims and possessions in the Spratlys; nevertheless, those facilities could arguably enhance Chinese capabilities to block the supply routes of Vietnam, Philippines to their controlled islands and rocks there. China’s attempts to block Philippine supplying routes to the Second Thomas Shoal in the first half of 2014 well illustrate this point.

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