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.
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.”
China has been pushing back against an attempt by Japan, another territorial rival, to claim a continental shelf and exclusive economic zone around a tiny atoll in another body of water. The atoll, called Okinotorishima, sits in the Philippine Sea, east of the Philippines and Taiwan and west of Guam. Only two knobs are visible at high tide. As of 2012, Japan had spent $600 million to surround the atoll with a wall of concrete, according to a report by Foreign Policy. Fishery officials planted extra coral in the area to reinforce the appearance of an island.