There's an unprecedented building boom in the South China Sea

South china sea Kennan csisAsia Maritime Transparency InitiativeHughes Reef, November 15, 2014.

The barren islets, cays, reefs, shoals and rocks of the South China Sea are witnessing an unprecedented building boom. Satellite pictures have revealed more about the reclamation work undertaken by China on features, especially in the Spratly archipelago, also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

On Woody Island, part of the Paracels group which is claimed by both Vietnam and Taiwan, China has long had an airstrip 2.7km (1.7 miles) long. Now, at Fiery Cross Reef, it appears to be building a 3km-long airstrip.

At Hughes Reef, 75,000 square metres of sand have been reclaimed since last August to house a large new facility, according to estimates by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a specialist journal. Further work is under way at Gaven, Cuarteron, Eldad and Mischief reefs.

Wikimedia CommonsA map of the South China Sea.

China contends that it is only catching up with decades of building by other claimants. Vietnam is estimated to have built on 25 features in the Spratlys.

Taiwan is quietly building a new port big enough to host warships on Itu Aba (also known as Taiping), in natural terms the largest of the Spratlys. Fiery Cross now appears to be larger.

Indeed, China’s building stands out for three reasons: its extent, its speed and its egregious flouting of the spirit of a declaration signed in 2002 with ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, in which all claimants promised “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.”

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