If you want to stake a claim to a stretch of ocean you need to own land in the middle of it. If there isn’t any land there you’re pretty much out of luck. Unless you’re China of course – then you just build some artificial islands and tell the world the sea around them is yours.
For several years now, China has been creating its own islands in the South China Sea, in an attempt to control the important seaways there. A third of the world’s shipping passes through the area. China might say – and even believe – that it needs to control the sea lanes to protect its own huge exports, but the danger is that if the communist superpower dominates the region it can interfere with everyone else’s trade, too.
Beijing’s strategy in the South China Sea is based around the Spratly Islands (which are also claimed by Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam) and the Paracel Islands (claimed by Thailand and Vietnam). Both island groups are tiny, consisting of a couple of square miles of low-lying islets and reefs, and basically uninhabited. The highest point on the Paracels is 46 feet above sea level and prone to being washed over in any major storm; the highest point in the Spratleys is just 13 feet above water. Sometimes.
Because the islands themselves are uninhabitable, China has spent a fortune dredging up rock, coral and muck from the seabed to expand and reinforce small atolls. These artificial islands have been turned into military air bases bristling with SAMs and anti-ship missiles – a clear threat to free movement in the region.
China claims that because it occupies land in the groups, it also owns the sea up to 12 miles offshore – which, because both groups consist of dozens of tiny, scattered islets, potentially lets them control a vast area of ocean. The rest of the world disagrees with China’s claims, though. US and British warships regularly run close by the artificial islands on “Freedom Of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs), to drive home the point that whatever Beijing says, these are international waters and China doesn’t own them.
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