China’s rapid pace of artificial island construction throughout the South China Sea is like the building of a “great wall of sand,” the US’s Pacific Fleet Commander said at a naval security conference in Canberra, Australia, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Admiral Harry Harris Jr said that China’s unabated construction of artificial islands throughout the disputed body of water is provocative. Beijing’s dredging of the islands, which all exist in either international waters or contested maritime territory, is only likely to further increase tensions in a region with complex overlapping territorial claims.
“What’s really drawing a lot of concern in the here and now is the unprecedented land reclamation currently being conducted by China,” Harris said. “China is creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers over the course of months.
“When one looks at China’s pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states — the lack of clarity on its sweeping nine-dash line claim that is inconsistent with international law, and the deep asymmetry between China’s capabilities and those of its smaller neighbours — it’s no surprise that the scope and pace of building man-made islands raises serious questions about Chinese intentions,” Harris added.
So far, China has constructed over 1.5 square miles of artificial islands on top of reefs in the South China Sea.
According to Reuters, Beijing has completed advanced stages of construction for six different island reefs throughout the sea with construction starting on a seventh.
The islands will serve as forward operating bases for the Chinese military. Various islands are being outfitted with ports and refuelling centres for ships while at least two airstrips have been built on the islands. Once construction is complete, Beijing will be able to use the bases to project their military force throughout the South China Sea.
“China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure — including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads and docks — on some of the man-made islands,” the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated in a staff report from December 2014.
The expansion of Chinese construction in the South China Sea is kicking off a series of territorial disputes with Beijing’s neighbours in the south, all of whom also have competing maritime claims to the reefs and islands:
Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all have military bases within the South China Sea on islands that those countries control.
Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims have driven the various nations of the region closer together. Vietnam and the Philippines have recently agreed to increase military ties. The two countries also jointly filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing.
In a bid to reassure regional allies against Chinese expansionism, Rear Admiral Christopher J. Paul announced in Canberra that the US would move Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers into the Pacific. Paul also asked for Australia to deploy warships alongside the US to help ensure regional security.