US navy says China is building ‘great wall of sand’ in South China Sea

Pacific Fleet commander says construction on reefs raises questions over Beijing’s intentions

The tower of an airstrip at Thitu island (Pag-asa) in the disputed Spratly islands. The US was critical when China unilaterally declared an air defence identification zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea in 2013. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The tower of an airstrip at Thitu island (Pag-asa) in the disputed Spratly islands. The US was critical when China unilaterally declared an air defence identification zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea in 2013. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

 

The US navy says that China is building a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea, and this is raising serious questions about its intentions in the region, over much of which Beijing claims sovereignty.

Speaking at a security conference in Australia, US Pacific fleet commander admiral Harry Harris jnr said China was pumping sand on to coral reefs and adding concrete, and by doing so had created over four square kilometres of artificial landmass.

“China is creating a great wall of sand with dredges and bulldozers over the course of months,” he said.

“How China proceeds will be a key indicator of whether the region is heading towards confrontation or co-operation,” several media outlets quoted him as saying.

One of the highest-profile areas has been the Spratly Islands, over which Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan claim sovereignty.

Online footage shows Chinese building on the Fiery Cross Reef what looks like an airstrip and facilities.

China has been critical of US efforts to increase its influence in Asia, especially the

“Asia pivot”, which Beijing believes is aimed at undermining China’s growing power.

It is particularly angry with the US for taking the side of Japan and the Philippines in China’s various maritime territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas.

For its part, the US was critical when China unilaterally declared an air defence identification zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea in 2013, and secretary of state John Kerry warned Beijing not to do the same over the South China Sea.

Provocative actions

“When one looks at China’s pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states – the lack of clarity on its sweeping nine-dash line claim that is inconsistent with international law, and the deep asymmetry between China’s capabilities and those of its smaller neighbours – it’s no surprise that the scope and pace of building man-made islands raises serious questions about Chinese intentions,” he said.

Foreign minister Wang Yi said last month China was simply carrying out necessary building work on its own islands and reefs, and said it would uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

“The construction does not target or affect anyone,” he said at a news conference.

“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.”

In a commentary last month, the state news agency Xinhua rejected comments by US department of state spokeswomen Jen Psaki, who said China’s development activities in the South China Sea were feeding suspicions that Beijing aimed to establish military bases across the sea.