Publication: Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment 2016
03 June 2016
In 2014 China began to implement a master plan to expand and consolidate its presence in the South China Sea, transforming seven small rocks and low-tide elevations that it occupied into artificial islands. In the space of 18 months, Chinese vessels dredged and pumped sand from the seabed and coral ripped out of nearby reefs until these features encompassed an area of 3,000 acres (12 square kilometres). For comparison, other claimants in the South China Sea – Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – expanded the land area of the features they already occupied by only 100 acres (0.4 sq km) over 45 years.
In 2015, the pace and scope of China’s reclamation activities accelerated markedly and it began to construct infrastructure, including airstrips and multi-level buildings. In April 2015, United States defence officials claimed self-propelled artillery on Fiery Cross Reef had been identified, though this was later removed by China. The following month, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spoke to reporters in Hawaii, noting that unilateral ‘land reclamation’ and militarisation was a new development and that the US would oppose ‘any further militarization’ of disputed islands. On 30 May, Carter addressed the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where he spoke at greater length to a regional audience, saying:
The United States is deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarization, as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states. As a Pacific nation, a trading nation and a member of the international community, the United States has every right to be involved and concerned.