Since Xi’s rise to power, China took on a more rigid position in the South China Sea. An example is the large-scale claim over the Spartly islands, understood as a bid to strengthen its territorial projection through the Nine-Dash Line area. Although Beijing justifies these pleas as part of a centuries-old imperial tradition, others believe the real reason is Chinese containment pushed since the end of the Cold War, as the Dulles Island Chain Strategy shows.
Actually, PRC boasts 20 outposts in the ParacelI slands and 7 in the Spratlys. Since 2013, the Chinese government engaged in unprecedented artificial island-building in the Spratlys. This was done through the broadening of its reefs by dredging sand from surrounding seabed, thus creating strategicfacilities such as ports, airports and logistic infrastructures. In short, 3200 acres of new land was built out of nowhere, known by US commanders as the “Great Wall of Sand”.
Figure 1. Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
First, a heightened military presence is the key to consolidate its claims over the archipelago. China has been intimidating other South-East Asia players engaged in the dispute, by entering their EEZ with the CoastGuard or civilian fishing vessels. Moreover, the militarisation of reefs offers Beijing a chance to wield a deterrent, by relying on launch bases’ installations or other military facilities.
However, the Spratlys are a complex issue, management-wise. Although the South Sea waters already are the scenario of countless military drills both of USA and China, PRC seems wary of deploying fighter jets and missiles, in order not to spark further tensions and identify a way to defend the outposts. Hence, island-building is a long-term strategy, which will help Xi in getting China out of the Malacca’s Dilemma, consequence of US containment, to gain a better maritime control of routes.
Figure 2. Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)