China’s island outposts in the China Seas might have a major weakness.
Since 2013 the Chinese government has dredged and mostly destroyed ecologically delicate reefs in disputed waters in order to build seven major military bases complete with ports, airstrips and radar and missile installations.
The islands function as unsinkable aircraft carriers and help to cement Beijing’s claims on waters rich with fish and minerals, waters that neighboring countries also claim.
“If the terraforming no longer makes headlines, it is because it is largely complete,” The Economist stated.
Perhaps the most important installations sit on the Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly island group. Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all also claim the Spratlys.
Between 2013 and 2016, huge construction vessels pulverized the reefs in order to create the raw materials for the bases. The dredger Tianjing alone shifted 4,500 cubic metres of materials every hour, “enough to nearly fill two Olympic-size swimming pools,” according to the Hong Kong South China Morning Post.
Beijing claims it has begun restoring the reefs it destroyed, but it’s unclear how effective restoration efforts might be. Marine biologist John McManus at the University of Miami said that dredging “kills basically everything” living around coral reefs.
To the Chinese Communist Party, the new bases were worth the environmental cost. The installations “allow China to control the entirety of the South China Sea in any scenario short of all-out war with the United States,” The Economist explained. “The new port and resupply facilities are helping China project power ever further afield. Chinese survey vessels look for oil and gas in contested waters.”
In 2014 China deployed an oil platform in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, leading to a stand-off between Chinese and Vietnamese forces. The Chinese eventually removed the first platform, only later to deploy a second one.