China is conducting dredging operations to reclaim land at six locations in the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea. The largest project – begun at at Fiery Cross Reef in August – is an artificial island big enough for a 3,000-metre-long runway and harbour.
The collection of approximately 45 Spratly islands and reefs have no indigenous inhabitants, but offer rich fishing grounds and may also contain significant oil and natural gas reserves. That goes more than a little way to explaining China’s tenacious interest in holding on to them, in the face of ongoing territorial disputes with Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Where there’s oil, there’s international tension.
Much of the ocean around the islands is treacherous for marine navigation, with numerous low islands, sunken reefs and atolls, with reefs often rising abruptly from ocean depths greater than 1000m. China’s efforts to reclaim land and construct an airport runway thus seems like an obvious solution to the problem, issues of territorial sovriegnity notwithstanding.
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