The U.S. made its strongest condemnation yet of what’s being called the “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea, Chinese man-made islands of sand that could be used for military purposes. Several smaller nations have claims in the South China Sea, and the U.S. wants to try to maintain stability, but the islands might become one of the newest challenges to peace.
According to the Washington Post, U.S. Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. gave one of the highest-level condemnations of China’s land reclamation efforts in a naval conference late Tuesday night in Australia.
“China is building artificial land by pumping sand on to live coral reefs – some of them submerged – and paving over them with concrete. China has now created over four square km (1.5 square miles) of artificial landmass. China is creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers over the course of months.”
Satellite images show the great wall of sand is being built rapidly, taking only a few months to cover a 1.5 square mile area. The islands are big enough for military installations, including an airfield, located in the high-contested Spratly Islands.
According to MSN, Admiral Harris added that China’s “pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states” led to questions about China’s real intentions.
Currently, the People’s Republic of China makes far-reaching territorial claims into the South China Sea, overlapping with the sovereign territory of several other states including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan. If the islands are used for military purposes, China could project its power over its neighbors, potentially creating de facto “air defense identification zone” in the South China Sea, according to China expert Yanmei Xie.
China is vehemently denying claims the new sand islands are meant to threaten anyone, and adds that the U.S. has no place condemning construction on what the country considers its sovereign territory. Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reasserted its right to rapid land reclamation.
“The construction does not target or affect anyone. We do not accept criticism from others when we are merely building facilities in our own yard. We have every right to do things that are lawful and justified.”
When asked if the great wall of sand had a military purpose, the minister added the islands were designed for “improving the working and living conditions of the people stationed on these islands.”
The Chinese media outlet Xinhua commented on the U.S. criticism last month, saying the U.S. has a “perverted sense of insecurity” and a “pirate-style mindset.”
The U.S. continues to move naval assets into the South China Sea. According to Fox News, Harris says 60 percent of the U.S. Pacific Fleet will be there by 2020. Whether it will be enough to counter the great wall of sand remains to be seen.
[Image via William Colson/CSIS]