Foreign Policy Blogs

Why is China Building Artificial Islands?

A Philippine surveillance photo shows an island that China has created on a reef among the disputed Spratley Islands in the South China Sea. Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, via Associated Press

When planning an international beach holiday, few holidaymakers think of China when choosing to spend their time on a beach.  China does boast one top destination for beachgoers, Hainan island, but the quality of most of its mainland beaches has diminished greatly in recent years by floating trash, oil slicks, or abundant algae. Given the extent of the cleanup required, and the Chinese knack for big construction projects, why not simply build a new beach or even an island?

According to one unnamed Western official, this is exactly what Beijing has been doing since January — rapidly moving sand onto reefs and shoals to create three or four islands, each projected to be 20 to 40 acres, in the Spratley archipelago.  The Spratleys, referred to as the Nansha Islands in China, consist of hundreds of reefs, rocks, sandbars and tiny atolls spread over 160,000 square miles.  Last month, digital sketches by China Shipbuilding NDRI Engineering Company appeared on Chinese news websites, and showed plans for a new island with shipping docks, parking lots and an airfield with a runway, airplanes and hangars. With a runway, any of the islands could be turned into a popular destination for sun-seeking Russians, Chinese ecotourists, or international jetsetters.

But is the growth of tourism really the sole intention of Beijing? Chinese actions rarely are so straight-forward and simplistic, and usually involve a multitude of well-calculated backup plans, all pushing forward simultaneously. One such plan, according to the same Western official, involves the newly-created islands acting to enhance China’s military presence in the South China Sea. Some critics say Beijing intends to populate the artificial islands, erect buildings, install surveillance equipment, and build resupply stations for government vessels.

Another closely-related plan involves using the islands to enhance Beijing’s claims to disputed territorial waters — sovereignty over the Spratleys is hotly contested among Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Depending on the eventual size and population of the islands, others worry Beijing may try to claim an exclusive economic zone within 200 nautical miles of each island, an area with abundant fish and some oil and gas reserves, or use the presence of the islands to get a better deal during future territorial negotiations.

The island-building has China’s neighbors alarmed and fighting back. Since April, the Philippines has filed numerous protests to China against land reclamation at two reefs and criticized the movements of Chinese ships they claim are engaged in island-building at two other sites. The Philippine Government has argued at an international tribunal that China occupies only rocks, reefs, and artificial islands — not true islands that would qualify for a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Under Article 60 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) the law stipulates that “Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.”

In a recent maritime delimitation case between Nicaragua and Colombia in 2012, the Providencia/Santa Catalina and Sanandrés islands of Colombia were given only 12 nautical miles of territorial sea. We should also keep in mind that Beijing’s efforts at land reclamation are nothing new for the region – Japan has built several and Malaysia has also tried to build up one atoll by bringing soil from the mainland and building a hotel. But Chinese construction of islands has drawn more attention than its neighbors’ actions, given Beijing’s increasingly aggressive claims to territory in the East and South China Seas.

Outside the region, Beijing’s actions have also caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who scolded China for “land reclamation activities at multiple locations” at a quarrelsome security conference in Singapore in late May. Danny Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, recently suggested a freeze in activities which escalate tensions in the area while a code of conduct is being worked out. In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a non-binding code which lays the groundwork for a more comprehensive code of conduct.

Manila has likewise suggested a wide ban on construction in the South China Sea, which was promptly rejected on Monday by Beijing.  Manila’s call for a ban on construction was triggered in part after Beijing broke construction on a school this week located on Woody (Yongxing) Island, home to a permanent population of 1,443 and about 350 kilometers (220 miles) south of China’s southernmost province. Critics claim Beijing is using the school, which will cater to around 40 children, to strengthen its claims to disputed surrounding waters. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario responded to Beijing’s rejection by stating he will propose that ASEAN call for such a moratorium.

The U.S. suggestion for a freeze on provocative actions and the Philippine call for a moratorium on construction are both aimed at slowing down Beijing’s attempts to change the status quo prior to ASEAN drawing up a code of conduct. Beijing seems intent on ignoring any freeze or moratorium, and deliberately slowing down the talks, so efforts need to be accelerated with ASEAN countries on agreeing to the code of conduct. It is clear that ASEAN will need to act in an atypical swift and concerted fashion to agree on a code of conduct should they wish to stem the shifting of the status quo — much has changed in these waters since the declaration of conduct was first agreed upon in 2002.

  • Matt

    China is not going to freeze provocative actions – like island building, because it doesn’t want to. So stop asking. If you (US leaders) don’t like it then prepare for war.

    We can see now that China’s peaceful rise is clearly and unequivocally at an end. There is zero doubt about this. Based on China’s more recent actions, we can see that it is not all that impressed with the now gutted US nuclear arsenal. It does as it pleases with no regard to the increasing possibility of getting into a nuclear war with the US.

    It’s time for US leaders to remember an important rule from history: If you want peace then prepare for war. This little rule suggests that gutting the US nuclear arsenal does not make us safer. It just makes the possibility of a planned nuclear war more likely.

    • Ben

      “If you want peace then prepare for war…”

      This is a good advice that China had just learned from her hard lessons. China’s soft stance in the past decades brought upon the aggressiveness of Pinoys, Viets, and Japs to gang against her (with the US’ backing).

      Besides, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan have been reclaiming islands (as the article had mentioned), why should China stop while she has just started to work on the islands which are rightfully hers?

  • tseten

    china is peacefully the rising power that the world have seen , they have dominated mostly the volatile regions that their interest are at stake, thus its high time for the other nation states to take a step in balancing the rise of the dragon

  • John Gallup

    Not that concerned with the creation of artificial islands, however I cannot agree with either Matt or Ben. Preparing for war is never a good action if your ultimate goalies peaceful coexistence. Just don’t get the American obsession with military superiority and agressive war stance. We live in a world that is much different than decades past, we must think and act differently, preparing for nuclear war is just wrong.

  • f0rTyLeGz


    When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
    the factories make trucks and tractors.
    When a country goes counter to the Tao,
    warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

    There is no greater illusion than fear,
    no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
    no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

    Whoever can see through all fear
    will always be safe.

  • Mary

    … I just started reading up on these artificial islands, and this is the first I’ve read. So far, I haven’t seen anyone address the environmental impact of altering atolls and reefs, which are so important as indicators of the health of the ocean and earth, as well as conserving coastlines from erosion… not to mention that the countries doing this and other assaults on the environment have done nothing to clean up their oil slicks, radioactive waste and garbage, nor the impact of overfishing and taking of endangered species. The corals, which are indicator species, are dying all over the world, as are plankton, which the entire ocean food chain depends on, because we are presently dumping thirty million metric tons of CO2 into the sea DAILY. We can no longer consider the ocean to be just s big garbage dump or oil drilling platform. They can either face it now and do some damage control, or continue the desecration and face much more expensive crisis intervention later. The Chinese in particular have a history of environmental destruction, wiping out bees with DDT so that they are forced to pollinate every fruit by hand, owning the deadest river in the world the Yellow, and owning the biggest toxic e-dump in the world. Their middle class loves to buy illegal ivory, tanzanite, etc. and really sees nothing wrong with the fact thst they are supporting the extirpation of elephants and the deaths of miners. And before the Japanese start to act smug: they overfish, kill cetaceans claiming it is scientific research when the emperor really has no clothes, and are allowing an unimaginable amount of radioactive waste into the ocean from Daiichi, saying it’s no longer their problem once it leaves their shores… and their plastics are mired in the Pacific Garbage Patch. The point is that this is a shrinking planet, and what one country does affects us all. I wish they would all mature and stop posturing because they will have to, sooner or later, but sooner would be less expensive in many ways. All of you disgust me.


Gary Sands
Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. [email protected]