China’s mischief on the reefs

How far will Obama go in order to slow down China’s accelerated construction activities in the South China Sea?

Construction at Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef in the disputed Spratley Islands in the South China Sea by China [EPA]
Construction at Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea by China [EPA]

China’s accelerated construction activities in the South China Sea have set off alarm bells across the region and beyond, prompting vigorous criticism from neighbouring countries as well as the US. China is constructing facts on the waters.

US President Barack Obama was blunt and direct in his criticism: “Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.”

Intent on consolidating its sweeping claims over disputed features in the area, particularly in the Spratly chain of islands, China has ramped up its construction activities on the Fiery Cross, the Johnson South, and Mischief reefs, among others.

Of particular concern is the impact of these construction activities on freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

South China Sea disputes as viewed by China

There is growing worry that soon China will deploy radar and missile defence systems to the area and push ahead with the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which will allow Beijing to dominate the skies over the South China Sea.

Growing pressure

Soon, China may be able to drive out other claimant countries from other disputed features by disrupting their supply lines and intimidating them with sizable troops, expanding paramilitary patrols, and advanced weaponry.

There is growing pressure on the Obama administration to demonstrate leadership and rein in Chinese maritime assertiveness, especially since no country in the region has the wherewithal to confront China. By all indications, however, China is decisively winning the scramble in the western Pacific.

To be fair, China is not the only claimant country that has engaged in construction activities in the South China Sea. In recent decades, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan have also built various forms of structures on features and islands under their control.

In the Spratly chain of islands, China also trails other countries in number of features under its control. While China occupies seven features, mainly rocks, atolls and reefs, Vietnam and the Philippines control 21 and eight features, respectively.

Previously a reef, now it is larger than all the islands in the South China Sea and is expected to serve as the command and control headquarters for China’s paramilitary, naval and air patrols as well resource extraction and rescue operations in the area.


If anything, China is a relative late-comer in the construction game. In fact, decades earlier, the Philippines and Taiwan constructed airstrips on the Thitu and Itu Aba islands, respectively. So, one could argue that China is simply trying to catch up with the rest. Upon closer inspection, however, China’s actions stand out in terms of scale, speed, and sophistication.

Latest satellite imagery show how China is transforming rudimentary features (eg, sandbars, reefs, rocks, atolls, and other types of low-tide elevations) into habitable islands and military garrisons.

The Fiery Cross, for instance, has been expanded by 11 times over its original size. It is nothing short of geo-engineering on steroids. The reef-turned-islands now hosts up to 200 troops, and its soon-to-be-completed airstrip can host large aircrafts, jet fighters, and surveillance planes.

Previously a reef, now it is larger than all the islands in the South China Sea and is expected to serve as the command and control headquarters for China’s paramilitary, naval and air patrols as well resource extraction and rescue operations in the area. This marks a decisive militarisation of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Running out of options

Not to mention the fact that China is laying claim to features several hundred miles away from its southern most province of Hainan, while other claimant countries are occupying features well within their 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf.

Under its notorious “nine-dashed-line” doctrine, China has laid claim to almost the entirety of the South China Sea. China has most likely accelerated its construction activities to pre-empt two major developments in 2016.

First, China aims to achieve de facto – rather than de jure – sovereignty over contested features ahead of the expected conclusion of the Philippines’ ongoing arbitration proceedings against China at The Hague sometime in 2016.

Bereft of any credible military capability to deter Chinese adventurism, the Philippines has relied on legal warfare to push back against China. The second factor is the transition towards a new president in the US, with Obama expected to be replaced by a potentially more hawkish and confrontational successor. China seems to be determined to hand down a fait accompli in the South China Sea to the Philippines and Obama’s successor.

In response, US allies such as the Philippines have asked for more advanced weaponry and naval vessels from Washington. To assuage its ally, the US more than doubled the number of US troops, which participated in the latest Philippine-US “Balikatan” (should-to-shoulder) joint military exercises.

Filipino-US solidarity

This was meant to signal Filipino-US solidarity in face of Chinese assertiveness. The US also proposed Japan, its other Asian ally, to conduct joint air patrols in the South China Sea, while encouraging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to create a joint peacekeeping force in the South China Sea.

The Obama administration has vehemently criticised Beijing’s posturing, while rallying its allies and partners against China. But it isn’t clear how far the Obama administration is willing to go in order to slow down, if not stop, China’s accelerated construction activities.

If Washington resorts to using its military muscle to counter Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea, it will run the risk of armed confrontation as well as a diplomatic breakdown with its top creditor and second biggest trading partner.

China’s neighbours, meanwhile, are unwilling to risk confrontation with the Asian powerhouse. China’s neighbours are running out of options. 

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.