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News Flash: China is Building Islands in the Middle of the Ocean

by James Hinton, published

Immigration. Same-sex marriage. Health care. Gun control. Welfare. Taxation.

I could go on, but I don’t think I need to. The list of political hot potatoes dividing the nation are all too familiar to anyone paying attention to American politics. Looking over the list, and the activities the political parties have taken in regard to them, it seems easy to conclude one thing: The only thing the parties can come together on is an agreement to leave moderation and cooperation on the curb.

There is, however, an issue that the parties might actually be able to come together over: China and its insistence on building brand new islands. Both major U.S. political parties have staked out policy positions that put them firmly in the same camp when it comes to Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The question is, will they take advantage of that to bridge the divide between the halves of Congress.

So What is China’s Island Building Campaign?

The construction of artificial islands is hardly a new phenomenon. The ancient Egyptians were building artificial islands to help preserve cities against the flooding of the Nile. The Celtic peoples of ancient Scotland and Ireland were building crannogs over 2,000 years ago. Tenochtitlan was nearly entirely artificial.

More recently, artificial island construction has been a practical affair intended to solve issues of space in already heavily built-up areas. Kansai International Airport was built on an artificial island in Japan’s Osaka Bay specifically because there was no room to expand Osaka International. Flevopolder, in the Netherlands, is the largest artificial island in the world, providing 370 square miles of space for agriculture in the densely populated European nation.

China’s island building campaign, on the other hand, takes place nowhere near crowded population centers. To the contrary, they are being built in the far-flung reaches of the South China Sea. They are intended to be large enough to maintain populations and possess sheltered harbors, with at least one being capable of holding a nearly 2-mile long airport runway. But currently they are nothing more than underwater reefs in the middle of vast expanses of open ocean.

The argument for these islands being put forward by China’s Central Committee is that they are being constructed to provide shelter and protection to the Chinese fishing fleet, and to protect Chinese territorial waters. The bays would be proof against storms and provide logistical platforms for supplying and policing the fisheries surrounding them.

So What?

The problem with the Chinese efforts comes specifically from the location these islands are being built. The South China Sea is 1.4 million square miles of ocean. Very few islands exist in this expanse of water, but it is riddled with atolls, reefs, and shoals. This makes it a rich fishing region.

It also happens to be sitting on significant chunks of oil and natural gas. Surrounded by China, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Singapore, everyone wants a piece of that bounty, but no one has a clear-cut single claim to any of it.

Further, it also happens to be an empty chunk of ocean covered in ships. 50% of the world’s shipping tonnage flows through it. An estimated 10 million barrels of crude oil (

currently valued at an estimated $590 million US) ship through the Strait of Malacca alone every day.

This is where those islands come into play. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), any body of land, including an island, grants the possessing nation sovereignty over the resources (such as fish and oil) outward for a distance of 200 miles. It also extends sovereign control of the sea lanes for shipping twelve miles from the low water mark.

Currently, much of the South China Sea is outside of anyone’s bailiwick. While a number of tiny islands do exist that could extend out into the “unowned” waters, every last one of them is disputed territory, which ultimately leaves no one able to use them to establish exclusive economic control over the surrounding water.

China’s island building, however, changes this up. By building these islands, China automatically claims them as sovereign territory. This means they can make the claim that the islands grant them the 12-mile limit on territorial claim and the 200-mile limit on exclusive control of the resources of virtually the entire South China Sea under UNCLOS.

In many areas, this creates an overlap of zones that could force a redrawing of the boundaries at the “halfway-in-between” mark, literally giving China control over regions currently recognized as belonging to other nations.

Maritime claims in the South China Sea from Wikipedia

Maritime claims in the South China Sea from Wikipedia

So How Does This Bring American Political Parties Together?

Even though the territorial disputes and China’s (is)land grab don’t impinge on America’s borders, the U.S. is in this up to its neck. The U.S. Navy is the world’s #1 enforcer of the policy of Freedom of the Seas, with significant amounts of resources being extended in commerce protection and search and rescue operations.

The disputed islands have already seen clashes that have resulted in the deaths of area fishermen and collisions between the maritime enforcement vessels of multiple nations. If China’s islands throw those boundaries that are recognized into dispute, this will only get worse.

This puts the U.S. in a dangerous situation. The already troubled waters could become a zone where disputes between nations can endanger the extremely busy shipping lanes the U.S. patrols. An example of what the South China Sea could wind up looking like could be drawn from Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris in the Strait of Hormuz, an act that prompted the U.S. Navy to significantly increase patrols in the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. then has little choice to get involved, and both parties have good reasons to take the matter fully in hand through very similar policy proposals.

For Democrats, the South China Sea is key to many of their trade ideals. The Democratic Party has officially made one of their plank issues the use of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a source of new American jobs and revenues through exports (in spite of some Democrats spearheading efforts to derail fast-track approval).

Several of the nations in negotiation to create the TPP are among those with claims in the disputed waters, and even more of the nations would receive American goods through shipping lanes in the South China Sea.

This is only further enforced by Democratic concerns about China in regards to free trade issues. Known as a currency manipulator and of being a frequent violator of international trade agreements, China has come under harsh condemnation by Democrats. An extension of Chinese control into new waters, and over significant percentages of world resources and trade routes can only further trouble the free trade that is a Democratic plank.

For Republicans, international trade is just as important. They have expressed just as much support for the TPP as a means to expand American business interests into new markets in Asia. They have expressed just as many concerns over Chinese trade practices.

In addition to these concerns, the Republicans have a long-standing tradition of being the party of hawks. Republicans have a reputation of seeing a strong military-industrial complex as a source of jobs and economic growth and stability. The need to maintain a strong military and to provide military exports is a familiar refrain in the smoky rooms of Republican politics.

This means that both parties have a very strong set of reasons to be proactive in the South China Sea, and to use similar tactics to do it. Both parties would stand to benefit from a hardline stance on China’s island building. Both would be interested in being able to point to increasing American jobs by increasing -- and protecting -- American exports among the nations of the South China Sea and East Asia.

In 2014, we saw signs of this potential bipartisan cooperation in play on this specific issue. Before last year’s midterms, the Democratic-controlled State Department cleared the way for bolstering the Vietnamese Navy as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism through sales of navy equipment. This included five fast patrol boats and an $18 million assistance package, actions traditionally taken by Republican administrations.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, notoriously suspicious of the U.N., have stepped forward to call for the U.S. to formally ratify UNCLOS, a traditionally Democratic position. Though the U.S. recognizes UNCLOS as “common” law, hawkish elements of Congress have blocked ratification over concerns about provisions for mineral rights in areas not clearly within any nation’s exclusive economic zone. This is the very same provision that China’s artificial islands seek to skirt. Ratification would formally allow the U.S. to act directly as an arbiter and enforcer.

Thus it can be seen that, while the “Made in China” era may be waning economically as Chinese manufacturing costs are catching up with those of the U.S., the roots of American bipartisanship on foreign policy may well be receiving a label that reads, “Made in the South China Sea."

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