In recent months, photos of new artificial islands and military buildings created by China in disputed territory in the South China Sea have wallpapered the world's news websites. On Friday, shots taken in March in an area called the Spratly archipelago — which is contested by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan — were released, revealing an under-construction Chinese airstrip.
In February, similar images showing the Hughes, Johnson South, and Gaven reefs, also disputed territories in the sea, showcased fortresses with piers, a cement plant, and a helipad.
These images, and many more like them, confirm that China's expansion in disputed areas is happening at runaway train-pace. This development, described as "unprecedented" by one senior US official, includes dredger ships and military bases, which make the snapshots look like they were grabbed from a game of Command & Conquer: Red Alert.
After seeing the Spratly photos, US Senator John McCain, chairman of the US Senate armed services committee, called it a clear threat.
"When any nation fills in 600 acres of land and builds runways and most likely is putting in other kinds of military capabilities in what is international waters, it is clearly a threat to where the world's economy is going, has gone, and will remain for the foreseeable future," he said.
The area is a tangle of territorial disputes — as well as the aforementioned countries Thailand and Singapore make overlapping claims too. Being the big dog of the region, China has lifted its leg most assertively — many say aggressively — last year gearing up a huge project to create new islands to house military bases and help them assert unchallenged control. The country claims around 90 percent of the sea, carving it up on a map with its own so-called "nine-dotted line." Additionally, these bases will also serve a technical and legal role in how arbitration and negotiations could be handled down the road.
China's comparatively weakly armed neighbors do not recognize the "nine-dotted line," but have been able to do little more than impotently watch the construction work take place on their doorsteps. Meanwhile, the smaller countries' diplomatic partner, the US, has grumbled from afar about China acting like a "bully" and pretty much left it at that, despite warnings from Republicans such as McCain.
China has repeatedly ignored or snapped back at criticism of its actions in the Sea, continually stating that the territory is Chinese and that everyone else should mind their own business. Earlier this month President Barack Obama said that China is using its "sheer size and muscle" to "bully" its neighbors out of the region.
In response, a fiery editorial in government mouthpiece news agency Xinhua stated, "Such finger-pointing laid bare again the mind-boggling hypocrisy of the United States, which takes habitual tactics of standing facts on their heads as well as blame-shifting. Arbitrarily exercising its mighty military power, the United States is the real bully in the world who has rarely missed an opportunity to stoke tensions between China and its neighbors."
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The speed of China's expansion, along with its hostile response to criticism, has created an air of mystery about the country's long-term military ambitions in the sea. There is concern that, along with the East China Sea, where Japan and China are squabbling over territory, the area is a tinderbox for potentially disastrous conflict.
Last year, Republican Mike Rogers, then a US Representative and chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, spoke about the South China Sea in grave terms, saying that China was causing "death by 1,000 cuts" there as it consolidated its power island by island, helipad by helipad, runway by runway.
"When you start looking at the totality of it and looking at those brewing clouds of conflict, this is as serious as it gets," he said.
"China likely has a strategy to advance its maritime claims incrementally without triggering the security commitment of the US, and without doing anything that would provoke full-scale conflict," Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' maritime transparency initiative, told VICE News. "It's one that has been devised skillfully to not prompt the intervention of major powers."
China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying confirmed last month what many China-watchers in the West already believe. For the first time, she publicly said that one of China's goals in the sea was "better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests," along with some fluff about how building in the area was creating better emergency rescue facilities.
Abraham Denmark, senior vice president for political and security affairs and external relations at the National Bureau of Asian Research, says, "China's ultimate goal in the South China Sea is to establish itself as the dominant power and turn it into a Chinese lake in which it can dictate what happens."
The economic importance of the Sea is one obvious reason why China is spending so much money and effort controlling it. Around $5 trillion-worth of ship-borne trade passes through the body of water each year, and many believe it will prove to be hugely rich in natural resources, including oil. And with President Xi Jinping attempting to drive up nationalism and pro-Communist Party values among the Chinese population, being seen to have total control of the Sea plays an important symbolic role domestically, too.
Some fear that the government's domestic propaganda campaign increases the chances of conflict being sparked.
"It would be a mistake to underestimate the ability of any country, including China, to believe its own propaganda," says Denmark, who used to work in the Pentagon as country director for China affairs in the office of the secretary of defense. "China's leaders have got very adept at talking themselves into doing what they want to do."
Denmark pointed to the example of the standoff China had with Vietnam last year near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. China moved its oilrig, Haiyang Shiyou 981, into waters that Vietnam claimed, and then seemed surprised when the latter country sent 29 ships to try and disrupt the rig's movement.
Vietnam claimed that China responded by having its ships ram and spray water at its vessels, with one Vietnamese fishing boat sinking after a collision. The incident is considered one of the most serious recent skirmishes to have taken place in the sea.
"The rhetoric at the time from China was that Vietnam and other countries had been claiming territories already, so they were genuinely surprised at the reaction," says Denmark. "That's where the danger is. China's leaders will talk themselves into an action that will generate a reaction that they don't expect."
Shen Dingli, deputy dean of China's Fudan University of International Studies, supports the notion that China wasn't anticipating resistance.
"Many countries have claimed territory in the area — you can't do it yourself then complain when others do the same thing," he says. "China doesn't want to retrieve islands through waging a war. So what do we do? Expand to have a level of control in the region."
Tensions with Vietnam have since cooled, with the two nations agreeing to work for a peaceful solution to their issues during a high-level meeting earlier this month. Not that the talks will have softened China's efforts to assert total dominance in the area.
"It's like a conference China's leaders had last year," says Denmark. "They came out with a statement about the need to improve relations with these countries, but buried in there was a caveat that China could never compromise on issues of sovereignty. They recognize the need to have good relations with people like Vietnam and the Philippines, but the message is still, 'this is ours, you need to get used to it or butt out.'"
'The joke in Washington DC is that for a US intervention to take place we'd need a different president. Some blame the Obama administration for being too soft on China.'
Of any potential engagement, a conflict with the Philippines seems the most likely. Earlier this month, Philippines President Benigno Aquino said that China's South China Sea expansion "should engender fear for the rest of the world." Last year, he compared China's actions to those of Hitler before World War II.
"These land reclamation efforts raise the potential for conflict due to accidental escalation," says Rapp-Hooper. "There will now be more vessels and aircraft in proximity to each other — many of the areas China are developing are only a few nautical miles of islands held by other claimants."
"The biggest concern is that there could be an incident between a Chinese ship and a Philippines ship that could bring the US into the crisis," says Denmark. "That has tremendous escalatory potential. But China has been operating in 'grey zones': actions that would lie somewhere between peace and conflict such as using maritime police to assert territorial claims and harassing ships but not actually shooting them. They want to keep things below that level, and keep on searching for ways to move the goalposts in their direction in a way that keeps tensions below the surface."
Certainly, it would take a significant crisis involving one of its diplomatic partners for the US to make a military intervention. Obama chose not to deploy troops for the oilrig crisis last year, arguably giving China an indication that the level of conflict they are able to get away with is pretty high.
Yun Sun, senior associate with the East Asia Program at security think tank the Stimson Center, says, "The joke in Washington DC is that for a US intervention to take place we'd need a different president. Some blame the Obama administration for being too soft on China."
Currently, tensions in the South China Sea are not quite as high as they were in 2014, when the oilrig incident took place. People such as Rogers might make noises about how the US should be reacting more strongly to China's expansion in the region, but without a major conflict to spark intervention, there's little to stop China continuing to pile up new islands and fortresses.
Denmark, Rapp-Hooper, and Sun are all in agreement that if another skirmish did break out in the sea it would probably be quelled before it escalated into something more all encompassing. But with China's land reclamation activity expected to be complete by the end of 2015, the chances of an accidental bump, shove, or sinking taking place are only going to increase.
"The potential for full-on war is low," says Denmark. "Although, China is obviously the long-term geopolitical challenge for the US. And, of course, the history of warfare is the history of countries making bad decisions."
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Additional reporting: Jiehao Chen