The islands and their mega-resources, which have suddenly emerged in the last six years, have drastically reversed the balance of power in the South China Sea – a key to much of the world’s international trade.
Dr. Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has broken down the controversy over the islands and what they mean to the rest of the world.
How did new islands come into being?
Dredging vessels were used to scoop up the seabed to build the islands on top of the rocks.
The man-made islands span an incredible nearly 3,200 acres of new land, according to research from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The space now occupied by the islands was not previously considered territory under international law.
A number of Asian countries have claims over the South China Sea, but China claims the islands as their territory and uses the islands to advance their claims over the region as a whole.
In 2016, an international court ruled that China had no right to claim ownership of the sea and ruled that China had violated international law by building the islands.
What are the islands used for?
The entire islands are being used to strengthen China’s military capabilities.
Aerial photos of the islands reveal that the military bases do not even provide space for a tree.
The military spaces host missile systems, radars, runways capable of handling heavy aircraft, fuel storage facilities to support military operations, and naval facilities.
Dr. Davis said the resources concentrated on the islands give China the power to potentially overwhelm the Association of Southeast Asian Nations military – which includes input from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
By using the islands, China has the potential to project military power all the way down to northern Australia or into the Indian Ocean.
Why do the islands worry?
The islands and the power they give China are worrying for a number of reasons.
In addition to massively strengthening China’s military capabilities in general, they are strengthening China’s demands over the South China Sea.
They give China overwhelming power to control the very important international waterway through which much of the world’s maritime trade travels.
If China is allowed to control the South China Sea, it can control much of the world’s international trade, especially the traffic that passes through these waters.
Trade shipments worth trillions of dollars pass through the South China Sea every year.
Control of the sea would also give China a much greater ability to isolate and force Japan into a crisis, said Dr. Davis.
This will be especially a risk if – or when – China starts military conflict over Taiwan.
What is likely to happen to these islands in the coming years – if anything?
There are a number of things China can do in the coming years that could increase tensions, according to Dr. Davis.
He said there would be activities in the South China Sea that would warrant international attention.
One possibility is that China could declare an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, which means that permission must be sought for all proposed air movements over the area.
Dr. Davis said the move is likely to take place and believes Australia will challenge it.
Another strong possibility is that China may seek to invade Taiwan and try to claim Taiwanese islands in the South China Sea, especially Pratas Island.
Dr. Davis said it was widely expected that China would take steps with Taiwan in the second half of this decade.
The artificial islands in the South China Sea will then be crucial in the ensuing military conflict, which is likely to lead to US intervention, followed by intervention from Australia and Japan.
Dr. Davis said the artificial islands would serve as an “operating theater” for China.
Is anything being done about them?
The United States and Japan conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) across the islands.
A recent U.S. plane on a similar mission was recently met with repeated demands to leave as it approached one of China’s new sea bastions.
China has in the past repeatedly demanded that US planes leave the region near its sea bastions.
Dr. Davis said ASEAN’s focus was more on diplomacy at the moment.
He said the organization was trying to create a code of conduct to control actions in the South China Sea, but that it did not challenge China on its illegal actions.
Why the conflict over the South China Sea matters