SHANGHAI—Armed only with a set of revolving teeth, the Tian Jing Hao, Asia’s largest dredger, has pulled off a stunning naval upset.
Under the noses of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, this Chinese vessel led a civilian armada that built almost 3,000 acres of land atop submerged reefs in the Spratly Islands, altering a strategic balance that has held since the great naval battles of World War II established U.S. primacy in the Western Pacific.
The construction began shortly after the Philippines challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea by filing a case at a U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague in January 2014. Now, on the eve of a legal verdict, China has achieved its objective: a new geography in the world’s busiest commercial waterway where China’s claims overlap with those of five neighbors, also including Vietnam and Malaysia.
However the five judges decide the case, China has permanently altered facts on the ground in its favor.
The seven Spratly outcrops on which it has built runways, docks, radar and other facilities give China the ability to project new military force in its contest with America for regional mastery.
Possession, after all, is nine-tenths of the law. And China’s island-building may not have ended. The Pentagon fears that Chinese dredgers might be planning a fresh round of construction on Scarborough Shoal that it effectively seized from the Philippines in 2012, which would give the People’s Liberation Army a jumping-off point just 140 miles from Manila. It’s bracing, too, for China to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the entire South China Sea, which China could enforce from its artificial islands. China has pledged to ignore the tribunal’s findings.
China’s land reclamation won’t change the legal case in The Hague; semisubmerged reefs don’t become islands even if you build on them. Nevertheless, slow-moving Chinese dredgers have outmaneuvered the world’s most powerful navy. China’s political leaders calculated, correctly, that America wouldn’t risk war over a bunch of uninhabited rocks and reefs to stop them.
Yet what the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Harry Harris Jr., has termed China’s “Great Wall of Sand” has raised the risk of future conflicts.
A regional arms race is under way. China’s smaller neighbors feel bullied and threatened by what’s become the sharp end of Beijing’s diplomacy: powerful cutters attached to the dredgers that have unleashed environmental devastation, hacking to bits pristine coral and threatening marine life such as the migratory yellowfin and skipjack tuna.
Their resentments are only partially soothed by the softer side of China’s regional engagement—hundreds of billions of dollars it has earmarked for infrastructure investment.