Chinese and American officials are deep into their annual meeting this week in Washington, hashing out the nations’ complex relationship. In addition to many economic and strategic issues, they’ll discuss China’s remarkable island-building in the South China Sea.
In just 18 months, China has created more than 2,000 acres of new land where before there were just waves and reef, according to the U.S. Beijing says it’s just trying to protect territorial claims in disputed waters, but American officials see a risk to regional stability.
Beijing says it has built the islands to catch up with other neighbors, such as Vietnam, which also has done reclamation work — but China’s has been on an epic scale, and many observers think future plans could include a naval base. On one reef, known as Fiery Cross, workers are building a runway that could extend to 3,000 meters and handle most military jets.
“The purpose is to develop a limited degree of military deterrence — primarily against the United States Navy,” says Feng Zhang, who teaches international relations at Australian National University in Canberra.