By Graham Weinschenk
Since as early as 1999, the People’s Republic of China has quietly been conducting one of the largest land reclamation projects in human history: the expansion of small islands and reefs in the South China Sea into sprawling military assets. Described by Admiral Harry Harris, US Ambassador to South Korea and former Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, as a “Great Wall of Sand,” these islands pose a massive threat to stability in the region and around the world. Constructing miniature military bases on these particular islands is a calculated strategic move by China, with the goal of improving their economic control over the South China Sea.
The conflict in the South China Sea that drove China’s island building desires originally began as a territorial dispute between China and several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Both China and Vietnam claim the entire South China Sea, while Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Brunei claim small islands within the Sea. China makes these claims based on the principles of “effective occupation” and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Effective occupation is a valid claim by the Chinese for some islands within the territory, but invalid for most other islands. Regardless, China asserts that the entire South China Sea is within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This has been refuted by UNCLOS because a nation’s EEZ cannot extend more than 200 miles, or further than the nation’s continental shelf. China’s claim violates both rules. This conflict was not necessarily problematic as a territorial dispute in the 1980s, as there was no associated armed conflict. However, the desire to harvest the abundant natural resources of the region has caused China to expand its geopolitical interests in the region, opening the door to potentially violent conflicts.
Since the energy crisis in the early 1990s, China has sought to reduce its reliance on foreign energy. The South China Sea could have 213 billion barrels of oil, enough to sustain China at its current rate of consumption for the next 46,000 years. The members of ASEAN, particularly Vietnam, share China’s interest in the South China Sea’s oil reserves. Vietnam has conducted over 60 exploratory drilling expeditions in the South China Sea, which China views as intrusions of their EEZ. As a result, there have been at least two encounters between Vietnamese drilling vessels and Chinese maritime forces. The Philippines also expressed interest in exploring their territory in the South China Sea for drilling. In 2011 alone, there were seven documented encounters between the Philippines and China.
To guarantee access to the abundant energy resources in the South China Sea, China has launched a two-fold strategy to secure their access. The first part of the strategy involves the rapid expansion of the Chinese Navy. The second part requires the conversion of islands in the South China Sea into sprawling military compounds.
With its naval expansion, China aims to support its island building program. To achieve these goals, China has created four new classes of submarines and six new classes of destroyers over the past twenty years. China has also prepared for the deployment of at least three new aircraft carriers and nine ballistic missile-carrying submarines by 2020.
China’s island building program began in 1999 and has escalated significantly since 2013. Seven islands – complete with airstrips, ports, and radar systems – were completed in early 2016, forming the first line of defense through the South China Sea. The islands chosen by the Chinese extend from the bottom tip of Japan, in the East China Sea, down past Taiwan towards Vietnam. This construction aims to prevent Taiwan from gaining its independence, protect its oil shipping routes through the South China Sea, and gain legitimacy for territorial claims. This chain of islands, along with the presence of the newly-invigorated Chinese Navy, has caused alarm in the region, as it could be used to blockade both Taiwan and the entire South China Sea.
In addition to the ASEAN nations who dispute China’s territorial claims, many nations have economic interests in the South China Sea. The United States, for example, has nearly $1.2 trillion in goods that pass through the South China Sea every year. Nations including the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom have challenged China’s territorial claims in recent years, and the United States conducted a freedom of navigation operation in January 2016, the second such operation in four months.
As China completes its island building mission and its naval expansion, what will be the result? By moving advanced military systems into the South China Sea, China is attempting to show the international community that the South China Sea is solely within their sphere of influence. It is highly unlikely that China will abandon its goal of securing access to the South China Sea’s oil reserves, and it is just as unlikely that the United States and ASEAN will give up their access to the waters of the South China Sea. As the world’s desire for oil increase, this conflict drastically heightens the risk for armed conflict if a solution is not found soon.
Graham Weinschenk is a Sophomore at the College of William & Mary studying Government and Public Policy. He is from Arlington, Virginia, and takes interest in the study of armed conflict around the world.
 Leszek Buszynski, “The South China Sea: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U.S.–China Strategic Rivalry,” The Washington Quarterly 35, no. 2 (April 1, 2012): 139–56, https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660X.2012.666495.
 tim Daiss, “How Oil Drives The South China Sea Conflict,” OilPrice.Com, March 4, 2018, https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/How-Oil-Drives-The-South-China-Sea-Conflict.html.
 “China Oil Production” (CEIC Data, 2017), https://www.ceicdata.com/en/indicator/china/oil-consumption.
 Derek Watkins, “What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea,” New York Times, February 29, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/30/world/asia/what-china-has-been-building-in-the-south-china-sea-2016.html.
 Megan Specia and Mikko Takkunen, “South China Sea Photos Suggest a Military Building Spree by Beijing,” New York Times, February 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/08/world/asia/south-china-seas-photos.html.
 Watkins, “What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea.”
 Daiss, “How Oil Drives The South China Sea Conflict”; Jane Perlez, “U.S. Challenges China’s Claim of Islands With Maritime Operation,” New York Times, January 30, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/world/asia/us-challenges-chinas-claim-of-islands-with-maritime-operation.html.