Foreign Policy Blogs

Climate Change v. Artificial Islands

Rough sea is seen underneath a maritime platform in Vietnam's Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Rough seas are seen underneath a maritime platform in Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The new year rang in a series of devastating winter storms ranging from the “bomb cyclone” hitting the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. to the deadly storm Eleanor battering Western Europe – examples of extreme weather which many scientists blame on climate change.  Over in Asia, Vietnam is recovering from Typhoon Tembin which damaged several islands it holds in the contested Spratly (Truong Sa) archipelago before hitting land on December 25.

Vietnamese media reported the island of An Bang was the worst hit – with 90 percent of its trees uprooted, crops and pig farms destroyed, and damage to such infrastructure as water tanks and lighting systems.  Some 80 solar panels installed on eight islands were also blow away by strong winds.  Several maritime platforms, where Vietnamese Navy soldiers are stationed, were overwhelmed by high waves which shook their foundations and damaged oil tanks and staircases.

Typhoon Tembin was the 16th storm to hit Vietnam last year, and follows Typhoon Damrey in November, which killed 106 people and was the worst on record since 2001.  Vietnam typically sees around 12 typhoons and depressions a year.

The record-setting climate change taking place around the world and severe typhoon damage in the South China Sea begs the question – why would anyone want to build islands here?  But build they do, as tensions over sovereignty have risen over the last several years and countries solidify their claims through fortifying their islands or building artificial islands to militarize.  

Of the many claimants, Beijing has been the most active, continuing the fortification of its man-made islands in the South China Sea, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  CSIS hosts the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website, which shows Chinese artificial islands are now filled with bunkers, aircraft hangars and shelters for radar, aircraft, warships and artillery.  CSIS believes “Beijing remains committed to advancing the next phase of its build-up—construction of the infrastructure necessary for fully-functioning air and naval bases on the larger outposts.”

As Vietnam has witnessed, the infrastructure which Beijing would depend upon given a military escalation is subject to devastation by strong waves, rising sea levels and salt water damage.  John McManus of the University of Miami reckons the “super typhoons” that occasionally devastate the region could, for example, damage or destroy China’s base on Fiery Cross Reef.  Any military operations would also be subject to the whims of typhoon season, which occur all year round over the northern South China Sea but generally can strike anytime between May and December.  How the battle between climate change and artificial islands plays out is yet to be determined, but could make any military operations in the South China Sea problematic.



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. Twitter@ForeignDevil666