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Revealed: China's Strategy to Dominate the South China Sea

With revelations of China’s systematic and rapid reclamation or “island-building” of various features throughout the South China Sea, long-simmering dispute in the South China Sea seem closer to boiling over. 

Terriclaims, short for territorial reclamation, is a term that is useful for describing a nation’s reclamation activities when it seeks to preserve or expand territory as part of a broader geopolitical ambition. States have reclaimed land for millennia, but no nation has sought to do so as far away from its own national boundaries as China. Moreover, the clandestine manner which China is undertaking these activities in the South China Sea is cause for concern.

To understand why China’s terriclaims are unusual, it is useful to consider some other state’ building projects. China is not building a Palm or World Islands, like the Emirati city of Dubai. Dubai’s multi-billion dollar reclamation project begun in 2001 envisions multiple archipelagos that emanate from the Emirati coast into the Persian Gulf. 

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Palm Jumeirah, the most recent archipelago completed in 2006 and configured in the shape of a palm, includes luxury homes, various resorts, and a monorail spread over miles of newly reclaimed land.

Rather, it appears that China’s building projects are part of an expansive territorial grab or to make China’s disputed Nine-Dash Line claim a reality. These terriclaims seem to be China’s latest attempt at a slow and methodical encroachment tactic to assert control over the SCS, a policy pejoratively referred to as “salami-slicing.” While China’s activities in the Spratlys may have only grabbed international attention recently, its use of this tactic is hardly novel.

Reclamation in Chinese History

Terriclaims are a novel attempt by China to reset maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, but their emergence should not take observers by entirely by surprise. This is becauseterriclaims are the latest incarnation of a long history of reclamation in China, which has traditionally been resourced and supported at all levels of Chinese government.

China has a legacy of reclamation dating back to the 5th century B.C., when it used dredging and reclamation techniques to construct the Grand Canal. The ancient and Venice-like city of Suzhou was built on reclaimed land.  In modern times, China has reclaimed massive parts of Macao, Shanghai, and even use reclamation in the recent expansion of Hong Kong International Airport.

Additionally, reclamation activities have been woven into Beijing’s national governance and responsibility for reclamation activities has been diffused to all levels of government. Indeed, the Chinese bureaucracy has four major organizations that handle one or more aspects of reclamation issues: the Ministry of Land Resources, the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the State Oceanic Administration.

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The political placement and maritime-focus of the State Oceanic Administration (guójiāhǎiyángjú 国家海洋局), under Minister Liu Cigu, make it unique out of these four. The SOA held the leadership role in reorganizing most of China’s maritime civilian and paramilitary organizations in 2013.

This coincides with the creation in 2012 of a new, high-level advisory group for maritime security issues by the Politburo Standing Committee, whose first leader was Xi Jinping. The evidence suggests that the SOA is leading the terriclaim efforts under direction from the highest levels in Beijing.

China is also not the first state to use reclamation to the South China Sea. In 1999, Malaysia constructed a two-story concrete building on Investigator Shoal (midway between the Philippines and Malaysia) along with a helipad, radar station, and pier. Taiwan carried out major reclamation projects on Pratas Island in 2007. China terraformed Woody Island in the Paracel Islands to include a 7,900-foot runway, three ports, and PLA Navy and Air force assets.

However, China not only appears to be protecting its claims but expanding upon them with these new massive terriclaim projects that have a uniquely military bent. The progression of these terriclaims’ point to the construction of airstrips, hardened facilities, storage centers, staging areas, and deep-draft channels for shipping. Enhanced civilian communication infrastructure, scientific research stations, or fishing support facilities would require neither such a large footprint nor the sense of urgency and secrecy in their construction. China watchers, such as Japan’s Yoji Koda, contend that potential reclamation (terriclaim) efforts on Scarborough Shoal alone could potentially create an island that contains multiple square miles of new land.

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