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Contested waters and island building in the Asian-Pacific

The quest for control of the South China Sea has stirred up old antagonistic relationships between many countries in the Asian-Pacific region. A new phenomenon of island building is being used as a means to try and change the boundaries of international waters. This region is importing sand like no other, as countries such as China, Japan and Singapore are building outwards in order to control and expand space for their citizens. Just like the sands through the hourglass, this scheme is being conducted remarkably fast. Now even more countries in Asia-Pacific have begun building their own islands, creating a potential powder keg for the region. The sandpit wars portray the geopolitical tensions in the region and the consequences of this phenomenon are far reaching.

Chinese Navy in the South China Sea. Source: Flickr
Chinese Navy in the South China Sea. Source: Flickr

It is no secret that China’s President Xi Jinping is striving for China to become a powerful naval empire. Growing in might, so that even fishing fleets are being armed in the quest for naval superiority, all in the aim of claiming the South China Sea. Satellite pictures of the Spratly reef show how quickly these new islands are emerging. China is continuously buying and pumping sand, as well as bringing in stone, concrete, water, food and people into these islands in order to establish them.

China is however not the only country in the region taking part in the sandpit wars. Singapore is another notable contributor to island building in the sea, and by no small feat the country has increased its size by 22% at a total of 13,000 hectares. Singapore is the world’s largest importer of sand and seems to have no intention of stopping now. However, the country has faced criticism from environmental groups, and Singapore is also feeling the tension from its maritime neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. Their island building project has resulted in environmental damage to the region’s fishing trade. Malaysia may be upset with Singapore, but their protests are taken under advisement when they are also pursuing an artificial island agenda. All with little regard to the environmental consequences.

Japan has also made its mark in the phenomenon of island building in the region, as they have reclaimed 25,000 hectares from the sea in the Tokyo Bay area alone. Moreover, Hong Kong will technically be moving closer to China as its harbor is now filled in. A project that has, surprisingly, not reduced the tensions between the two.

Spratly islands map showing occupied features marked with the flags of countries occupying them. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Spratly islands map showing occupied features marked with the flags of countries occupying them. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regional tension will probably not subside as China is using these islands as military posts in order to reinforce its claim over the Spratly reef. Such action is creating anxiety in the region, as a potential powder keg may result in a regional arms race and possible conflict. Of course, China is not the only country making official claims to the area, ASEAN members such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan are making similar claims over this area of sea. Nonetheless, considering China’s large military power, its quest for naval control is contributing to regional tensions and creating fear among its neighbours. If China continues down this path of militarizing the Spratlys and is unable to guarantee the right to navigation within the reef, it will be violating the 1982 United Nations convention on the law of the sea.

The significance of the Spratly reef lies in the fact that it holds notable fisheries and possible large oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea. There is however also an environmental impact to the island building trend. The obvious impacts of smothering marine life, as well as use of heavy metals, oil and other chemicals are threatening the diverse ecosystem of the Spratlys. The importance of this region is clear; approximately 300 million people depend on the marine resources of the South China Sea, which hangs as a dark cloud over the possible implication of a regional powder keg.

On a more positive note, there are incentives to use the power of island building in order to help some Pacific nations combat global warming and rising sea levels. Most notably, the island nation of Kiribati is looking abroad to the UAE for help in building a new home for its population. In a desperate action the entire nation from becoming refugees, perhaps there is some good that can come from island building.

Considering the unclear intentions of the countries involved in the South China Sea project, as well the broad political and environmental impact, island building should not be taken lightly. There is a good side to island building, but in regards to the South China Sea, it appears to be a rather dangerous game that has the potential to escalate into a political (or even armed) conflict. The power of sand is well documented in the Asian-Pacific region, but only time will tell how the sandpit wars will end.

Lauren McIntosh and Michal Gieda 

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