It’s been more than a year since we first started following China’s project to build artificial islands in contested areas of the South China Sea, setting off what could properly be called a diplomatic shit storm. Today, China reassured the world that it’s almost done, alright?
For the past year, China has been sucking sand up from the ocean floor and piping it onto the shallow reefs of the Spratly islands, also known as the Nansha islands. This is an area of the world that’s hotly contested by a huge number of countries, from the Philippines to Vietnam, and by building infrastructure like airports and military outposts there — reclaiming as much as 2000 acres, according to The New York Times — China is bolstering its own claim.
The move has incited a huge amount of pushback by the countries involved, especially the Philippines, where protesters have rallied against China’s encroachment. That said, China hasn’t stopped — or even really acknowledged — its terraforming project. That changed today, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Lu Kang, published a statement calling it “lawful, reasonable and justified.”
Protesters march towards the Chinese Consulate in Manila, Philippines, last week. AP Photo/Bullit Marquez.
What’s more, it’s almost over. The island-building effort “will be completed in the upcoming days,” Lu Kang writes. “After the land reclamation, we will start the building of facilities to meet relevant functional requirements.”
So it’s not so much that China is backing down from the project, but that it’s almost done with the land reclamation part of it. Either way, it’s an amazing example of how infrastructure can be wielded as a weapon when it comes to international relations. Take a look at how the Spratlys have evolved over the past year below.
Here’s what the islands look like naturally. This 2003 photo from NASA shows us a “drowned atoll” called the Union Bank & Reefs, part of the Spratlys.
This June, 2014 photo from the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs shows the reclamation process, whereby sand is dredged up and piled onto existing shallows:
By March of 2015, the Spratly islands were starting to look much more established. Those little black shapes are dredging ships:
A month later, in April, a report from The Center for Strategic and International Studies showed incredible progress around the new islands:
And finally, last month, the AP’s Ritchie B. Tongo gave us our most recent glimpse of the Mischief Reef, another focal point in the Spratlys.