Sand, cement, wood, and steel are China’s weapons of choice as it asserts its claim over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei have sparred for decades over ownership of the 100 islands and reefs, which measure less than 1,300 acres in total but stretch across an area about the size of Iraq. In recent months, vessels belonging to the People’s Republic have been spotted ferrying construction materials to build new islands in the sea. Pasi Abdulpata, a Filipino fishing contractor who in October was plying the waters near Parola Island in the northern Spratlys, says he came across “this huge Chinese ship sucking sand and rocks from one end of the ocean and blasting it to the other using a tube.”
Artificial islands could help China anchor its claim to waters that host some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The South China Sea may hold as much as 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. China has considered the Spratlys—which it calls Nansha—part of its territory since the 1940s and on occasion has used its military might to enforce its claim. In 1988 a Chinese naval attack at Johnson South Reef, in the northern portion of the archipelago, killed 64 Vietnamese border guards.
At a briefing last month, Voltaire Gazmin, the Philippine defense minister, said land reclamation work at Johnson South Reef started in February. There have been reports of Chinese activity at two other reefs in the Spratlys. “They are creating artificial islands that never existed since the creation of the world,” says Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of a sparsely populated stretch of the archipelago called Kalayaan. “The construction is massive and nonstop,” he says, and could pave the way for China’s “total control of the South China Sea.”
Such alarm has been stoked by Chinese news reports, such as one in February on the online portal Qianzhan. com that said Beijing had drawn up a plan to build a military base at Fiery Cross Reef, about 90 miles west of Johnson South. Establishing islands equipped with airstrips would allow China to set up an air defense zone similar to the one it created in November over a group of islands in the East China Sea where it’s contesting sovereignty with Japan.
Any move to fortify the reef will “raise tensions and violate the Declaration of Conduct,” says Charles Jose, a spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, alluding to a 2002 document signed by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The nonbinding pact calls on parties to refrain from “inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features.” A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Hong Lei, says his country strictly abides by the agreement.
The Philippines has taken its dispute to a United Nations tribunal, a process China does not recognize. Mayor Bito-onon favors arbitration, given that the Philippines is dwarfed militarily by China. “You can’t fight a gun with a bolo,” he says, referring to a machete-type knife. “That’s crazy.”