The Conundrum of China’s Massive Island Building in South China Sea

The airport that China has built on Fiery Cross Reef can be used for both civilian and military jets. Photo from CCTV footage

Mischief Reef airport. photo

Subi Reef airport. photo

In January 2014, the military column of published a report bases on expert sources that Chinese navy has drawn up a plan to take all the islands occupied by the Philippines but claimed by China as its territories, especially Zhongye Island. It would be a battle restricted within the South China Sea and there was no plan to attack Philippine homeland.

Zhongye Island is located near the center of the South China Sea. An air base there can control the entire sea while the air bases on Chinese coast are too far away to do so.

On February 11, 2014, carried a report titled “Revelation of China’s plan on US$5 billion ‘super aircraft carrier’, a shocking deployment at South China Sea” on PLAN’s plan to spend US$5 billion to build two large artificial islands respectively at Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef.

That was the first time ever that the construction of artificial islands was mentioned in Chinese media. It proved PLAN’s failure to obtain approval for attacking Zhongye Island.

An air base on the artificial island on Fiery Cross Reef can also control the entire South China Sea while that on Mischief reef will be a fishery and fish farming base to provide income to recover the huge construction costs so that the construction of the artificial islands will not be a financial burden on the state. Anyway, the construction costs less than an aircraft carrier, but the island is a huge unsinkable aircraft carrier with much great fire power. PLAN plans to build the island in 10 years equal to the duration in building a large aircraft carrier.

At that time, little attention was paid to the report due to the doubt whether such an expensive plan will be adopted by China’s central authority. Chinese navy itself feared that the costs were too huge so that it suggested the construction of a fishing and fish farming center on Mischief Reef to recover the costs.

The Establishment of a Prefecture-level City with No Land or Population
There was no further news about the construction of islands on reefs for quite some time. Perhaps, the construction is too expensive. $5 billion is quite a lot of money. However, suddenly, the Philippines found that China was conducting large-scale land reclamation on quite a few reefs in the South China Sea.

The US and Philippines regard the reclamation as a military move.

The Washington Post carries an article by Simon Denyer titled “U.S. Navy alarmed at Beijing’s ‘Great Wall of sand’ in South China Sea”. The term “Great Wall” certainly means that the writer of the article regards the reclamation as a military project.

The article says, “Last month, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed concerns that the program was an attempt to ‘militarize outposts on disputed land features.’”

In fact, the reclamation is not for military purpose though the artificial islands built on the reefs have military investment value.

What then is the truth beneath the conundrum?

The article quotes Yanmei Xie, senior China analyst with the International Crisis Group in Beijing, as saying, “Although China’s exact intention is unclear so far, they are likely mainly designed to extend China’s power projection, by expanding, for example, its surveillance, early warning and air interception capabilities further out into the sea. With these added capabilities, China could have a de facto ‘air defense identification zone’ in the South China Sea, even though it may not rush to declare one out of concern for the political and diplomatic fallout.”

The full text of Washington Post’s article can be found at

China’s exact intention is not clear?

When China established prefecture-level Sansha City to govern the islands and reefs in the South China Sea in 2012, its intention was not quite clear. There are three levels of city in China: provincial-level city such as Beijing and Shanghai ranking the same as a province but are, in fact, more important than a province as the Party chief in charge of the city is usually one of the 20 plus Politburo member; prefecture-level city directly under a province that has a few counties and county-level cities under it; and county-level city. Usually a county has a population exceeding a hundred thousand while a county-level city has a larger population than a county.

People wonder what China was up to in establishing such a high-level city there. There is little land in the city and only a negligible population of around 1,000 people.

However, the reclamation to build large islands has made China’s intention very clear in establishing the prefecture-level city. China is filling the city with land through land reclamation.

As a city is usually densely populated, a dozen square kilometers of land is quite enough for a beginning, but the land has to be filled with people. Now, China is constructing buildings on the land reclaimed to house the people it will soon transfer to the artificial islands.

First, there will be fishermen and fish farmers. Using China’s artificial islands as fishing bases, Chinese fishermen can go deep into the South China Sea to fish much more easily with much less fuel cost. Moreover, the islands will be the bases for energy exploitation. Lots of oil exploitation support facilities will be located there. As a result, more and more fishermen, fish farmers and energy exploration and exploitation workers will live on the islands. They are doing well-paid jobs and need various facilities to make their life there enjoyable such as hospitals, clinics, restaurants, supermarkets, clubs and even theaters for the residents there.

When the islands in Sansha city have prospered with such facilities, China will develop tourism there. Chinese tourists will flock to the islands instead of Maldives, Jeju, Bali, Basha, Palau, etc. due to easier access and communications, better services and lower costs. The seafood there will be especially fresh, cheap and diversified when fishery and fishing farming prosper there.

Sansha City will grow fast into a true prefecture-level city. That is the truth beneath the conundrum.

In Chinese history, China often built cities on its remote border and fill them first with garrison that live on the farming there and then moved people there. That is a good way to defend China’s long border.

The development of Sansha City is but the extension of China’s traditional way to defend its border. The only difference now is but the defense of China’s sea area instead of land area.

Washington Post says in its report, “The US and Philippines regard the reclamation as a military move.”

It is in fact a combined military and civilian move. The three airports on the islands can control the entire South China Sea.

The establishment of Sansha City has thus put an end to US hegemony in the South China Sea!

However, if the city is established merely for military purpose, it will be very expensive to build and maintain. The development of fishery, fish farming, energy exploitation and tourism will enable China to recover the costs and even make profits from the city.

Moreover, only by the establishment of the maritime Sansha City in the South China Sea can China really have the area claimed by it. A country’s marine area does not exist in map or its claim. There has to be physical presence. The artificial islands, the fish farming, the energy exploitation, the fishing boats and perhaps the floating island that China will build there will be China’s actual presence there and China will be really benefited by its rights and interests in the area by such presence.

Article by Chan Kai Yee